By Cheryl Magness
The Rev. Thomas Dunseth was serving as an LCMS missionary in Macau, China, when he first met Deaconess Diana Rice. At the time, Rice’s surname was Lei, and she was a 16-year-old student at Concordia School for Special Education (CSSE) in Macau.
Rice, who has been deaf since age 5, was born in Fujian, China, but when she was 13 years old, her family moved to Macau to access the city’s more extensive educational resources for the deaf. Dunseth said, “It was pretty clear when I first met [Diana] that she was already an exceptional student — naturally bright, with an inquisitive mind.”
Dunseth baptized and catechized Rice and encouraged her to consider church work. After graduating from Macau University with a degree in elementary education, she moved to the United States. She studied English and American Sign Language (ASL) at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C., and theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. She then entered the deaconess program at Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., graduating in 2018.
Rice now serves as the sole full-time teacher at St. Martin Lutheran School for the Deaf in Dearborn, Mich. The school — a program of Ephphatha Lutheran Mission Society, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization — accepts students from preschool through eighth grade and operates in space provided by Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in Dearborn. St. Martin students, of whom there are currently three full-time and three part-time, interact regularly with Emmanuel students — eating lunch, having recess and participating in other activities together — and all students and staff, both deaf and hearing, learn ASL.
Rice — who homeschooled her own four children — is a strong supporter of classical Christian education, which she says teaches “the whole person, body and soul. While we learn subjects, we also learn that God is in each of these subjects.” When she started teaching at St. Martin in 2018, she used her own materials from her time as a homeschooling parent. She continues to write and adapt curriculum as needed to serve her students. “Deaf students require much more visual instruction,” she notes.
Rice says the best thing about her work is seeing a student who has not previously been taught ASL begin to develop a vocabulary for talking about God’s creation and learning about Jesus — perhaps for the first time. The greatest challenge is when friends or family members of her students refuse to learn and use sign language at home. “We can’t teach everything here,” she says.
‘Exactly where she needs to be’
In a promotional video for St. Martin, parent Camille Coller described meeting Rice for the first time when she brought her son, Zachery, for a tour: “[Zachery] pointed something out and was signing. … She stopped the tour and was engaging with him. … We hadn’t had that up until then.”
The parents of Tavia Hardesty said they chose St. Martin for their daughter because the school holds the deaf students to the same standards as the hearing students. “[Tavia] is reading and writing at the same level that any normal 6-year-old is,” said Justin Hardesty. “She is exactly where she needs to be.”
The Rev. Tyler Walworth, who serves as senior pastor at Emmanuel as well as sole pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church of the Deaf in Beverly Hills, Mich., is a daily presence at St. Martin, teaching Bible stories, English and Latin. He also teaches confirmation class to Emmanuel students and leads weekly chapel, which — for St. Martin students — alternates between a shared, interpreted chapel with Emmanuel students and St. Martin’s own ASL chapel.
Walworth, who is fluent in ASL, first worked with the deaf community when he was on vicarage in 2013. He has continued working in deaf ministry because “there is a major gap in the education of deaf children. … But the even greater gap is the number of deaf children who don’t have access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both of these needs constantly come to my mind as I continue to think of how to serve this community that our dear Lord Jesus loves so much.”
Dunseth, who served in Macau from 1993 to 2000, tells the story of the Rev. Dr. Louis Jasper’s retirement as principal of CSSE in 1996. Jasper had served in the role for 30 years. “It was his last chapel service,” Dunseth said, “and he was shaking hands with the students, some of whom were crying to see him go.
“When he shook hands with Diana, he told her, ‘I’m so glad you are deaf because if you weren’t deaf, you would never have moved here. And if you had never moved here, you wouldn’t have learned about Jesus Christ. And because you believe in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t matter that we have to say goodbye, because we know we will see each other again.’ ”
Rice remembers that day. She told Jasper at the time, “I’m glad I’m deaf too.” Over 25 years later, she is still glad.
St. Martin is pursuing accreditation as a classical Lutheran school and hopes to add a high school in the future. Learn more at smlid.org.
Posted Dec. 8, 2022