A jungle with tropical plants, monkeys and birds. A mountain valley with a cabin nestled among the trees surrounded by a grassy field. The sea filled with coral and colorful stones. The world is brought to the shelves of a little apartment in Highland Park, Calif.
An avid sculptor, the resident of this apartment handcrafted most of the animals, then carefully compiled them into individual scenes to reflect the earth around him.
“I want to be an artist,” he said.
Even though the walls burst with color and his creative design, he has never seen his apartment. Christopher Cook is both deaf and blind.
Cook, 51, has lived without sight and most of his hearing since an early age. His hearing began lessening at age 13, from a rare disease called Voight-Carnegie Syndrome. His sight also failed early on.
“My sight, although good in some ways, was not exactly normal,” Cook said. “I could never read print and had to read Braille from Kindergarten up.”
At 14, he noticed a significant deteriorating from a retina infection. The eye infections were severe, resulting in the loss of Cook’s right eye, and a shell put over his left. At 16, he was completely blind and possessed only 20 percent of his hearing.
“They were very grievous losses,” Cook said.
Despite limited hearing capability, Cook continued to foster his love for music. A wall in his living room is devoted to his music collection, with over a hundred CD’s and tapes.
“I had enjoyed music much in my boyhood,” Cook reminisced. He tried behind-the-ears hearing aids, but they “buzzed and whistled…somewhat of a nuisance,” Cook said.
When he was 24, Cook was fitted with a cochlear implant. The results, while helpful, were less than miraculous.
“The implant is good enough for me to identify many sounds, but not good enough to understand speech. It’s also hard for me to tell the origin of sounds,” Cook said.
These challenges caused Cook to experience isolation, which is common for the deaf blind according to Val Hultslander, who has been ministering with her husband to the deaf blind community through a Highland Park church plant called Grace Bible Deaf Church. The deaf and blind struggle with communication and will often be overlooked in conversation, Hultslander said.
Cook had limited interactions with the Church until he came to Grace Bible Deaf Church 15 years ago. “When he came, he was not a believer in any way,” Hultslander said. “I don’t think he had any religious thoughts.”
While there are many ministries for the deaf, Grace Bible Deaf Church stands apart as first devoted to the deaf blind.
“Having a ministry to the deaf, and the deaf-blind is difficult because compared to the deaf blind, the deaf are so much more independent,” Hultslander said. “Now after working with the deaf-blind, you don’t see the deaf as nearly as disabled.”
Previously unexposed to the deaf community, the Hultslander missionaries learned American Sign Language (ASL) in real time, along with taking a couple years of ASL training at Glendale Community College after moving to Highland Park apartments.
The Hultslander’s came from Mexico where they were church planters for nine years. As their kids grew they desired to move to the states for ministry.
“We checked out a few of the ministries they had here and we really liked this ministry,” Hultslander said.
Unlike in Mexico, where they were traveling from location to location to minister, Hultslander appreciates the accessibility of living with the deaf blind.
“You open up your door and there’s your mission field,” he said.
As Cook began attending the church services held by Bob Hultslander and the partnering pastor Jim Hanson, he began to read the Bible. Val Hultslander described Cook as accepting the Lord as Savior after hearing the preaching of the Word of God.
“There has been a pretty good change in his life.” Val Hultslander said. “He’s growing…you can tell the change in his life and the Lord is working.”
Hansen says their goal is to bring the hurting deaf blind to a community of friends and establish trust for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel. Because the deaf blind community is small, Grace Bible Deaf Church’s ministry has been a national encouragement, providing a safe haven for the deaf blind to be loved.
It’s difficult to see if their efforts are fruitful, but the missionaries at Grace Bible Deaf Church testified to the faithfulness of God.
“The Lord [is] leading us…the good thing is that He is faithful,” Val Hultslander said. “And ultimately we all walk by faith and not by sight.”
By Desiree Teichroeb