Connections: Lottie Riekehof
June 1, 2014
The Joy of Signing
Lottie Riekehof set out to compile a sign-language dictionary and wound up with the best-selling book in Gospel Publishing House history. She retired in 1990, but her book The Joy of Signing remains a mainstay of deaf education. It also led to a nine-hour video version and two puzzle books. In 2001, Riekehof discussed her career with Ken Walker.
evangel: How did you get involved in sign language?
LOTTIE RIEKEHOF: At 25, I was working at Calvary Gospel Church in Washington, D.C., as a missionary and musician and overseeing a home for Christian working women. I met a woman in the home who was deaf. When she went to services, she looked closely at the pastor because she couldn’t hear.
She taught me a few signs a week. Later I took classes at Gallaudet University [the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf]. After two years I was invited to Central Bible College. I had no degree but started teaching signs. I took courses while interpreting for deaf students and got my bachelor’s degree.
I was dean of women at CBC from 1951 on and continued to teach sign language. Then I went to New York University [1968-70] to work on my doctorate, where I had previously gotten my master’s.
When I taught at CBC, it was the first time sign language was offered for credit. When I started at Gallaudet [in 1970], it had never been offered for credit. I was kind of a pioneer, but credit goes to both schools for being willing to offer it on a credit basis.
evangel: What was the value of a sign language course?
RIEKEHOF: At CBC my students went out as missionaries, full-time ministers, and interpreters for deaf people in hearing churches. At Gallaudet, graduate students who were preparing to go into deaf education took it.
evangel: How did The Joy of Signing come about?
RIEKEHOF: I found an American Indian book of sign-language drawings for intertribal communication and thought, This is the kind of thing we need for the deaf.
In 1961, American Sign Language was privately published by Wayne Shaneyfelt, a former student who became a missionary to the deaf in the Philippines. He sold a thousand or so. In 1963, it became Talk to the Deaf. We added illustrations and it was picked up by Gospel Publishing House.
In 1978 I did an updated edition. I said, call it Talk to the Deaf, Part 2.
They said, “No, give us a new title.”
One Sunday morning the Holy Spirit dropped it in my heart — The Joy of Signing. Many deaf people have told me how happy they are about the title.
When I completed the book, I showed it to my pastor [Claude Qualls at Arlington (Va.) Assembly of God] and he said, “Let’s dedicate it to God.”
All the deaf people gathered around and laid hands on it and prayed God would use it around the world. That’s exactly what happened.
evangel: How has it been used?
RIEKEHOF: Although hearing people use it to learn signs, deaf children learn from this book. They see a sign being used, but they don’t know the word. So they look through the book to find the sign drawing and then learn the vocabulary. Many parents have found the book useful in learning to communicate with their deaf children.
I saw a television program where they were teaching chimpanzees and they pulled out The Joy of Signing.
evangel: How has working with the deaf enriched your life?
RIEKEHOF: My greatest blessing is to see my students going into ministry with the deaf and to know that many deaf people have received the gospel.
evangel: How can churches minister to the deaf more effectively?
RIEKEHOF: There is a strong move to provide services and interpreters to the deaf. Some churches have separate services for them. Deaf people have various skills and likes and dislikes. Some enjoy being with hearing people, and others only want to be with deaf people.
It’s a challenge because hearing people feel awkward with the deaf since they don’t know sign language. It’s wise to start a sign-language class in the church so hearing people can mingle more easily with deaf people.
evangel: Share your vision for deaf ministry.
RIEKEHOF: I want to see deaf Christians grow in the Lord and be active in church as well as winning other deaf people to the Lord. Deaf people understand each other because they’re in the same language and culture group.