WEPC members Chris and Janna Lee are raising support to return as missionaries to Namibia, Africa. They previously spent more than eight years in the country as church planters, but are now returning to focus on serving the deaf community. I recently talked with Janna over the phone, and she shared with me how she became a Christian, what she loves about sign language, and the challenges she and Chris face in returning to Namibia. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
– Jessie Harvey
When did you become a Christian and when did you first feel called to the mission field?
I became a Christian when I was nine years old. Around that time, I realized I was a sinner. I had heard about Jesus all my life, and I knew he was my only hope for salvation. So I trusted him around the age of nine, and I was baptized around the age of twelve.
My church when I was growing up was very mission-minded. They had missionaries who would come in and show slides and tell mission stories. My parents were also very mission-minded. They had missionary friends who they had grown up with and who were serving in places like Brazil . . . Kind of interesting—around the age of seven, I was in school, and they were showing us a little film about Holland. I knew it was far away, on the other side of the ocean. There was a man who just looked like a sinner to me, [laughs] and I thought, “That man needs Jesus.”
I went forward at my church when I was seven years old. They asked me why I came forward, and I told them I wanted to be a missionary when I grow up. From that moment on, when anybody asked me what I wanted to do, I would just tell them I was going to be a missionary when I grow up.
Chris accepted Christ as a teenager in Sunday School class. He was a senior in high school at Derbyshire Baptist, and then he went off to Virginia Tech. During the Thanksgiving holiday, his roommate invited him to travel with him to Illinois to attend the Urbana Missions Conference. On the last night of the conference, they asked if anyone felt led to go to the mission field to stand up. He was sitting almost at the top of the bleachers, and he stood up. He said he just felt like God was calling him to be a missionary.
Briefly describe what your work will look like in Namibia:
I will be working directly with the deaf people, trying to communicate with them and share Jesus with them at an after-school program at the deaf school. I will also be trying to find interpreters in Namibia and trying to build workshops to train more interpreters and give them help.
Just out of curiosity, will you be signing in an international sign language? I would guess the spoken language in Namibia is not English.
Actually, the spoken language in Namibia is English, but Namibian Sign Language is different than American Sign Language. I learned Namibian Sign Language first—and more fluently—when we lived in Namibia. But the only thing they really trained interpreters in was the vocabulary words. You know, “This sign stands for this. This signs means this.” But there was not a lot of training in interpreter skills or code of ethics, you know, how an interpreter is supposed to work. So I’ve been studying to become an interpreter at J. Sargeant Reynolds, and I’m hoping to go back with everything that I’ve learned through workshops and classes and really build a team of great interpreters who can really communicate for the deaf there—in church services, in court rooms. A lot of deaf people end up in jail because there’s not enough qualified interpreters to communicate what happened and to get the correct answer back. There’s just a great need for trained interpreters.
It’s interesting that you mention that learning sign language is more than just learning a vocabulary.
Exactly. There’s a structure to the language, where the word structure goes, where the sign structure goes. I’ve learned a lot about space and how deaf people use the invisible space in front of them to set up their story. I never knew that existed in a deaf person’s eyes before.
Every now and then, interpreters show up in the news. I remember during one of the snowstorms in New York this past year, the mayor of New York was giving a press conference about shutting down the subway system. His sign language interpreter, who was actually deaf himself, got a lot of attention for his facial expressions.
It makes more sense to a deaf person seeing your facial expressions! Your facial expressions are probably 40 percent of sign language. People think it’s all in the hands, but really it’s a lot in the face. Like when your eyebrows go up, a deaf person will think you’re wanting a “Yes” or “No” response to a question you’re asking them. And if your eyebrows go down, you’re asking a what, when, where question.
So why Namibia?
It’s a long story! We were headed to Nigeria. We had filled out all of the paperwork, and they did not accept us. The government of Nigeria did not accept us. A man who did not like the missionary we were going to help spoke out against us to the government and told them not to let this couple in our country. Even though we had never met him before, he was saying horrible things about us to the government! But the Lord used that. Here we were fully supported, ready to go to Africa, and without a country to go to. So we were praying about Ghana and Namibia. And the Lord really put a burden on both of our hearts, especially Chris’s heart, to go to Namibia. We just saw through step after step that Namibia was exactly where God wanted us.
And he kept us there when other missionaries got kicked out. God made Richmond, Virginia and Windhoek, Namibia sister cities right at the time God was calling us to Namibia. We didn’t even realize this was happening until about a year later when we needed some extra paperwork to stay in the country. Tim Kaine was the mayor of Richmond at the time, and he was a good friend of Chris’s dad. Chris’s dad told Tim Kaine we were getting ready to be kicked out of the country, and Tim Kaine wrote a letter to the mayor of Windhoek asking him to let the couple from their sister city stay.
What will be your greatest challenge in going back to Namibia?
It’s just so far away! By the time you get to Namibia, you feel like you have found the ends of the Earth. It takes about 24 hours to get there no matter where you’re coming from. It’s just a long trip.
Also, it’s an isolated country. It’s kind of regressive, out of the way, and in the middle of a desert. Of course, electricity is on and off. It’s very unstable. And because it’s a desert country, water is rationed.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to the people. The Lord really gave us a great love for the Namibian people, especially the deaf community. But there are a lot of dear friends that we made during our eight years there who have continued to be our friends through the years. We are just looking forward to going back and helping them and strengthening them in as many ways as we can.
When did you first feel the call to work with the deaf?
I was in about the sixth grade, and there was a lady who interpreted in our church for a few services. I was very curious, and I asked if she would give me a few lessons. She did! She met me in the church office for probably two months, and she was just giving me a little bit of sign language vocabulary. It only last two months, and then I was in sixth grade, and life kept moving on.
My brothers worked for the Bill Rice Ranch, a camp in Murfreesboro, Tennessee that was started by a family who had a deaf daughter who they wanted to teach about Jesus. She started bringing her friends home who also wanted to learn about Jesus. So they started like a cowboy camp where deaf children could come for free and ride horses. My brothers went there every summer when I was a girl, and they worked for about three months each summer just to interact with the deaf.
And then my brother married a girl whose mother was deaf. Before the wedding, my dad went to the bookstore and bought all of these books and videos about American Sign Language. He put them on the table and told me to learn quickly because the wedding was coming, and he wanted us to communicate with the mother of the bride. So I watched some of those videos, but never with the intention of being an interpreter. It was not near the passion I have now of being fully able to communicate the gospel to these people in their own language.
But it was a seed planted!
It was. The Lord just always seemed to keep us aware that there was a deaf world out there.
And Chris recently shared with me that when he was in sixth grade, there was a deaf girl that had an interpreter—doing what I do everyday. Going to school, sitting in class to interpret for a student. The Lord was planting a seed in Chris’s heart, too, for the deaf.
Chris was the one who found an article in the Namibian newspaper that was advertising free Namibian Sign Language lessons. Chris encouraged me to go these lessons. If the seed wasn’t planted in his heart as well, I never would have done it. If Chris didn’t have a passion to reach the deaf, I wouldn’t be so free to be able to go to class, study, and put hours and hours and hours into learning something. I recently heard a musician who was talking to children about playing an instrument, and he said you need about 10,000 hours of practice before you get good at something. If I didn’t have a supportive husband in Chris who allows me the 10,000 hours to learn, it just wouldn’t happen. It’s a team effort.
What do you like about working with SIM (Serving In Mission)?
SIM is a great support system. It’s a team effort in a lot of areas. They’ve been around a long time, and they know the ropes. I feel secure with them. You know, when we were young, we did it as independent missionaries. We did a lot of stuff on our own. But it’s nice as we get older, still wanting to serve the Lord, to know that as a team, we can do more. When we’re weak in one area, another part of our team can be strong. And when they’re not having the charity or wisdom in one area, we can be there for that. Being there on a team in Namibia is going to be different than when we were there as church planters, just the two of us.
SIM also has a lot of elderly missionaries who are still serving. They’re like, “Now that you’re older and not as physically able, we can still use you in this position.” So I feel like there’s a real future with SIM, that I can continue to serve the Lord no matter how old I am.
What is your timeline in reaching Namibia and what challenges do you face in getting there?
My goal is to have our support raised by August 12. That’s coming up!
Paperwork in Namibia can take quite a while. But once we get 80 percent of our support, then they really start focusing on the paperwork and getting that going for us. So I’m hoping by August 12, we do have at least 80 percent or our support and then hopefully be on the field by the end of the year.