Published:Sunday | February 26, 2017
Andy Svoboda had no idea that taking a sign language course at a vocational school would lead to him giving up a very lucrative career yielding US$80,000 a year to become a missionary in Jamaica. "I never would have thought, while getting an engineering degree 20 years ago, that someday I would be managing a farm and a furniture factory staffed by deaf people, " he told Outlook. Today Svoboda serves as president of the US non-profit organisation - Caribbean Deaf Ministries.
He shares his story with Outlook in his own words:
"I became a Christian was I was 11 years old, living with my family in Ohio. Still, I grew up putting way too much importance on what people thought of me. As a result, I became really good at making people laugh, and I was always one of the top students in my class. I believed the definition of success was to get a good degree - I became a mechanical engineer; get a good job - I grossed US$80,000 per year as a salesman; marry a beautiful woman - I married Michelle; have a family; retire; then die. Most people would define this as the 'American dream'. I would call it being selfish.
Bumps in the road
I started to realise some bumps in my path towards the 'dream', when Michelle and I were struggling for five years to have children. In an attempt to get our minds off infertility, Michelle and I decided to take a course at a local vocational school. We looked at the courses being offered and decided to take American Sign Language. We didn't know any deaf people in our local community, but it sounded fun.
Apparently, God had a plan because almost as soon as we started taking sign courses, God started using my sign language as a ministry at church, then Michelle became pregnant with our first son Andrew. A few years later, our second son, Curtis was born.
Even after seeing God's hand at work in my life, I still wanted to live primarily serving myself. This kind of life honestly never works well. I struggled with anger towards anything and anyone who got in the way of my happiness. My marriage was struggling, and my perfect life wasn't anywhere near as satisfying as I had imagined it would be.
One day, Michelle asked me to join her on a missions trip to Jamaica to work with the deaf community there. It seemed to make sense since we knew sign language. I made the mistake of reading the US State Department's statistics on crime in Jamaica, and said 'no way are we going there'. Since Michelle wouldn't be deterred, I decided I better go to protect her. I would soon realise that God was in greater control than I could ever be myself. Plus, doing anything of real value comes with risk.
After a week of working in Montego Bay, my heart never left Jamaica. When we returned to Ohio, God was at work. He was showing me that He wanted all of me. He wanted to exchange my focus on material things and my weak definition of success with real value. He wanted to use me and my family to do something of eternal worth.
In July of 2012, our family moved to Mandeville to start working with the deaf community at the Jamaica Deaf Village. I never would have thought, while getting an engineering degree 20 years ago, that someday I would be managing a farm and a furniture factory staffed by deaf people. I never would have thought I would be preaching on Sunday mornings in Jamaican Sign Language.
We became these weird things called 'missionaries'. I remember people from my church becoming missionaries and then coming back to tell us about the interesting things they did. The stories were nice. I was happy that they were doing the work, but that was not for me. Now I realise that Christ has called all Christians to be missionaries. I love seeing people's expressions when I tell them that we are not special. We are not some sort of super-Christian breed. Our prayers aren't more powerful than theirs, we are just as tempted to be selfish as anyone else.
I love what I get to do now and I am happy. After three years in Mandeville, we got the opportunity to move to Kingston. Now I preach once a month at the Calabar Deaf Fellowship. I'm excited that God has also opened doors for me to work in the field of Deaf education. I am a mentor and tutor at the Lister Mair/Gilby High School for the Deaf in Papine. I love the students there we have so much fun together and I get to have many deep conversations challenging the students to work hard, do their best and set their goals high.
I am also blessed that the University of Technology (Utech) has recently opened the door to their first full-time deaf student. I interpret for the deaf four days per week at UTech. This shows Jamaica that the deaf aren't 'dumb'. So many people here still call deaf people 'deaf and dumb'. People think that deaf people either can't speak or there is something wrong with their brains. Neither is true. Deaf people are actually as intelligent as hearing people, they can learn to use the voices, but it is much more efficient to sign.
Lessons in humanity
What I have learnt about humanity is that there aren't really classes of people, or at least there shouldn't be. Unfortunately, it's really easy for us to allow ourselves to believe someone is less than another person. What I've learnt about myself is that God is willing to use even me to make a difference in the world. I've been around deaf people for the past 15 years and there are still so many areas of communication in which I am weak. Some areas I wonder if I can even improve in. Still, God has allowed me to serve this group of people who have encouraged me to get over fear and just live. I love it when I get together with a group of deaf guys expecting to teach them something about the Bible, and they end up teaching me about patience and perseverance.
When people ask me 'what's next for you here?' my answer is usually, 'I wish I knew!' Of course I have dreams, but I don't know what God plans to do next. I dream about improving every level of deaf education in Jamaica, I dream about finding jobs for the deaf community. I would love the hearing community to fully realise the value of those in the deaf community. I want the deaf to realise their own worth as God's children. This is my new and improved definition of success, and the real dream is to be doing something so fulfilling. I want to be told 'Well done!' by my Creator when I die.
Photos By: Rick Ashley Foster
Clothing: Maxie Department Stores