Robert Faircourt has been deaf since childhood, and American Sign Language is his primary language.
While he learned English in school, reading and understanding the Bible has always been a challenge for the 74-year-old from West Valley City, who was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness in 1969. Over the years, he has longed for a deeper connection with teachings of the Bible.
Faircourt’s prayers were answered one year ago as the Jehovah’s Witnesses released what the church believes is the first complete Bible in American Sign Language, a text-to-video translation project that took more than 15 years to complete.
In the last year, Faircourt and other members of the Salt Lake area’s sign language congregation have relished watching the ASL Bible on phones, tablets and computers. Not only has it enriched their personal Bible study, but they delight in sharing it with others in the deaf community.
Now with greater understanding, Faircourt makes it a priority to watch and learn something from the Bible every day.
“When I first saw the Book of Matthew in ASL, I was engrossed. I watched the whole thing,” Faircourt told the Deseret News through an interpreter. “I have gone to deaf expos over the years and seen some attempts at translating parts of the Bible into sign language, but the quality of this translation into ASL ... is so much better than what have seen in the past.”
Another member of the congregation, Stephanie Aitken, joined the faith nearly a decade ago. The 66-year-old woman from Spanish Fork was born deaf. Several years ago, she suffered a stroke and is now in a wheelchair in a nursing home. Before the pandemic, friends drove her an hour to and from church.
Her interpreter, Michael Jones, said it was difficult to put into words the expressions of joy and happiness he saw in her body language as she communicated her gratitude for the ASL Bible.
“I am so happy! It is cool. I love and cherish it. It touches my heart,” Aitken said using sign language. “The English Bible didn’t really touch my heart before, this one does. It has helped me learn about Jehovah and helps me in my preaching work.”
Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, based in Wallkill, New York, said the ASL Bible is free and available on multiple platforms, including the app store on Apple, Google and Windows, as well as www.jw.org/ase.
The ASL Bible was one of 33 New World Translations of the Holy Scriptures the church completed in 2020. Jehovah’s Witnesses plan to release 36 more translations (in whole or part) in 2021, according to a press release emailed to the Deseret News.
“The whole philosophy is we need to translate and deliver the Bible in the language of a person’s heart,” Hendriks said. “That’s our mandate in every language because the Bible is more than just words.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses report thousands of active users and millions have downloaded the ASL Bible videos, which depict men dressed in suits and ties using their hands and facial expressions to convey the scriptural message of each verse. The response from the ASL members has been “emotional,” the spokesman said.
“It’s like a gift, a love letter to them,” he said. “Their reaction has been, ‘I can finally take control of my own spirituality. I am not dependent on anyone. I can finally have a relationship with my creator.’ ... The Bible is now in their own language, hitting their heart, affecting them in this powerful way. All of the sudden they feel closer to God.”
Most of those downloads likely come from people outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to Hendriks.
“Probably the majority of people who use this Bible are not Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he said. “It’s a modern-day miracle.”
Michael Overholt, a Salt Lake City media host for the church, recalled seeing a Catholic woman moved to tears when he showed her the Lord’s Prayer in American Sign Language.
Of its 8 million members worldwide (1.3 million in the United States), Hendriks estimated the number of deaf Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. to be around 2,100. Between 60 and 70 regularly attend the congregation in Salt Lake City, which was established in 2007. (The congregation isn’t meeting in person right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Janet Burciaga, 38, lives in Logan and has been a Jehovah’s Witness for 25 years. She lost her hearing as an infant and relies on sign language to communicate. She remembers when the ASL Bible translation project started with the Book of Matthew in 2005. Until that point, reading was a “negative experience,” she said.
“When I was a teenager, I would read the Bible but struggled to understand it,” Burciaga said. “Then in 2005, seeing the translation to ASL begin, it touched my heart. I cried. I said, ‘Thank you, Jehovah, I needed that.’”
Denise Gutierrez, a 54-year-old woman living in West Valley City, lost her hearing as a child and began learning sign language at age 12. Like the others, the videos have dramatically increased her understanding of the Bible, and she is grateful.
“Especially at times like this, we all need encouragement. The best place to find it is in God’s word, the Bible,” Gutierrez said. “Being able to understand the Bible helps me to apply it.”
Along with the excitement Faircourt feels in watching the videos, he likes to share them with other deaf persons in Utah, who are often amazed, he said.
“They have never seen anything like it,” Faircourt said. “God wants us to share good news with people. Having the Bible in ASL makes it easier for me to do so. Now I can really help people.”