The Miracle of Ephpheta

text by George Martin
photographs by Miriam Sushman

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The miracles worked by Jesus in the Holy Land did not cease with his ascension into heaven. One may still witness them in Bethlehem, at a place called Ephpheta.

Once “a deaf man who had a speech impediment” was brought to Jesus, who “looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphetha,’ that is, ‘Be opened!’ And the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark: 7:33-35)

The Gospel account has the ring of realism. Deafness and impaired speech go together, for speaking is learned through hearing. Jesus both opened the ears of the deaf man and gave him the gift of speech.

Modern miracles giving the gift of speech to the deaf take place at Ephpheta, an institute in Bethlehem named in memory of the Gospel miracle. There, 101 deaf Palestinian children, aged three to 16, are taught to speak and lip-read, making it possible for them to communicate with others.

Most of us take hearing and speaking for granted. We seldom grasp the devastating effects of deafness, particularly in a young child. To be a person requires, almost by definition, having the ability to communicate. Those born deaf are condemned to a lifelong prison of silence, shut off from full human interaction with others. That is unless they are somehow given the means to communicate with others. This is the mission of the Paul VI Ephpheta Institute.

Ephpheta was founded at the Pope’s request after his visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Supported almost entirely by CNEWA-PMP, Ephpheta admits children on the basis of need, not their parents’ ability to pay.

Ephpheta is run by the Sisters of Saint Dorothy, a largely Italian community dedicated to spreading the love of Christ through fostering human and Christian development. Although engaged in many types of educational and social work, the sisters have specialized in educating the deaf.

How does one go about teaching a child born deaf to speak? It is a slow and exceedingly painstaking process. The more I witnessed it, the more I marveled.

The first step began before Ephpheta opened its doors in 1971. The Sisters of Saint Dorothy have more than 100 years of experience educating the deaf. They have developed their own methods for teaching the deaf how to speak. But before Italian sisters could teach Palestinian children how to speak their native Arabic, these sisters had to learn Arabic themselves.

This was no small hurdle: Arabic ranks among the most difficult of languages and it contains guttural sounds not found in Western languages. Europeans and Americans who learn Arabic as adults usually have great difficulty mastering these sounds. Imagine having to master them well enough to teach them to a deaf child! But that is one of the accomplishments of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy.

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Tags: Children Sisters Holy Land Education Disabilities