I never met the Rev. Bob Rumball and know nothing about his theology, but given his training at Northern Baptist Seminary, we would probably agree on a lot of things.
On the other hand, while I can’t discuss his orthodoxy, his orthopraxy was known to all the world. His obituary, following his passing on June 1st, says it well: “He is recognized as the individual who had the greatest impact on the quality of life, human rights and services for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Special Needs community in the past century.”
Growing up in Toronto, I was aware of the Bob Rumball School for the Deaf (pictured below) which was about a half dozen miles west of my home. I had always assumed that some personal or family connection propels people into certain areas of ministry, but according to his Wikipedia article, “He was introduced to Deaf culture while preaching at the Evangelical Church of the Deaf, located at the time in downtown Toronto, and began a lifetime of advocacy. He learned American Sign Language to communicate with Toronto’s Deaf population, and give their needs a voice.” They had been hoping for a deaf pastor, but couldn’t find one. The former Canadian Football League (CFL) player accepted the invitation in 1956.
In the 1950s, Christian ministry, especially in Baptist culture, was all about proclamation. The sense of social justice which has now swept through Evangelicalism had not yet arrived, even though Christian church history and missiology is filled with stories about the founding of hospitals, hospices, schools and a multiplicity of other avenues for social concern. I’m sure that in the elites of conservative Protestantism, there are those who would see working with the deaf a ‘lesser’ ministry calling when compared to orating the great truths of the gospel to a packed Sunday morning congregation.
In this writer’s mind however, we need to celebrate the exceptions to that mindset. The Henri Nouwen type of thinking that challenges a career path in academics to serve the developmentally handicapped, one person at a time. The William and Catherine Booth type of thinking that stands up to the religion of the wealthy, and offers an alternative worship venue for the poor (and much more). The Bob Rumball type of thinking that challenges the assumptions of what it means to be a Baptist-trained preacher and instead devotes a lifetime to serving an easily marginalized segment of the population.
It was those people who became his congregation. In a 2009 The Toronto Star article marking the 30th anniversary of the facility which bears his name — as well as his 80th birthday — he describes his flock: “The prisoners who could not talk to their jailers. The sick who could not explain their pain. The mother wrongly convicted of murder because she couldn’t be heard in court.”
The article documents overcoming the greatest roadblock “…He had zero experience in sign language and no concept of the distinctive deaf culture it helps create. But with the nimbleness that allowed him to play both sides of the line in his journeyman football career, Rumball took easily to the fluidly lovely language, which he mastered within months.”
Finally, on the facility itself The Star noted that today it “includes a 75-room residence for seniors and special needs adults, a daycare, a non-denominational church, a library, a skills-training facility, sign language classes for new Canadians, a host of community service programs and a welcoming space for social functions of all kinds.” Not onsite is a summer camp founded in 1960, about two hours north of the city.
Bob Rumball found a need that was not being met and filled it. What needs and missed opportunities which lie around us can we fill?
Learn more at BobRumball.org