Growing up, Jessenia Rios didn't like church.
She couldn't hear the choir sing.
She tried to read the pastor's lips but he spoke too rapidly.
Deafness separated her from the one her family called savior. He was the man in the painting, the figure on the cross. A miracle lost without translation.
Until Rios opened a door at First Baptist Church of Brandon and found others, just like her, embracing the story of Jesus Christ.
Now, she sits with friends from the church's deaf ministry, waiting for Bible study to begin.
"I was saved here," Rios, 21, communicated using American Sign Language.
Her smile expresses a joy undefined by words.
Since 2005, First Baptist's deaf ministry has given hearing impaired children and adults the opportunity to worship together using their own language. There's no need for interpreters. The classes and small groups are just for them.
"This is their ministry," said Christa Smith, director of the program. "It is a place where hearing impaired people can come relax, be social and fellowship together."
According to Smith and Deaf Ministries Worldwide, only 2 percent of deaf Americans consider themselves born again Christians. Deaf Ministries Worldwide president Gary Barrett reasons it's because most churches don't know how to reach them.
"There are a lot of hearing churches with interpreters," Barrett said, using a telephone interpreter. "What people don't understand is there is still a language barrier. English is not a deaf person's first language, American Sign Language is, so (with an interpreter) the deaf only get bits and pieces of the message."
Christa Smith and her husband, Ron, started the First Baptist ministry inspired by their hearing-impaired son Ryan. They tried interpreting services for him but it wasn't working. So, senior pastor Thomas Green encouraged them to start a separate ministry.
It began as a children's outreach and grew to include adults. There are now about 30 people involved overall. ASL fluent volunteers lead daily and weekly events including an extensive after-school program for children ages 4 to 14.
Rios volunteers with the after-school children. She helps with homework, plays games with them and shares Bible lessons using visual communication tools.
"I want to help teach the kids about God," she signed. "I want them to understand."
For Rios' mother, Martha, every day at First Baptist is a blessing. She remembers trying for years to find a family church. Now, her daughter is ministering to others.
"It was hard as a mother with a deaf child," Martha said. "My husband and I, and her sister, we were all saved, but we couldn't explain to her what that really meant. We were so happy to come here (to First Baptist). Now we're all learning about God together."
Nathaniel Bostick attends Sunday morning Bible study with the Rios family. He spent years wondering what God was all about. Now he asks questions and openly discusses religion among deaf peers.
"It's very important for people to learn the word of God," he signed. "This ministry helps and makes it easier to learn, or we wouldn't know the real meaning."
About 14 adults attend First Baptist's Sunday morning group. They pray together and laugh at one another's jokes. They get emotional when they read Scripture.
"God had a reason for our deafness in his plan," Jennifer Singleton signed one Sunday. "We have to trust him."
Christa Smith said she is thankful for the success of the deaf ministry. The more she witnesses people coming to Christ, the more she wants to help. She now has an associate's degree in sign language interpretation from Hillsborough Community College.
Her son Ryan, now 14, still inspires.
"I've seen how much this ministry has helped him," she said. "When we started it, he didn't have very good social skills. Now he is a mentor and a leader to the younger kids."
Rios also serves as a mentor. When she enters the children's after-school room, her face lights up with joy. She goes to the church at least three days a week.
She's the one signing away, happy and eager to share her faith.
"I really like this church," she signed.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]