Michele Kassa hates the spotlight. Yet almost every Sunday, there she is, in the spotlight interpreting Pastor Miles McPherson's sermon at the Rock Church.
Her expansive involvement in the Deaf communityboth inside and outside of the churchplus her role as a single foster mother to four Deaf/special needs children, her leadership in the Outreach ministries of the Rock, the many Miles Ahead crusades, and her longtime involvement in the annual Toys for Joy campaign: all of these sacrificial activities inspired the church to choose Michele Kassa as the first Rock Hero.
"Oh, my. I'm honored!" Michele said when she heard the news. She was quick to add that her ministries involve many people just as dedicated.
Pastor Miles greeted the news by remembering Ephesians 4:11-12. In that passage, the Apostle Paul talks about how Jesus provides the Body of Christ with ministers especially gifted "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry."
"Michele is a vivid example of that," said Pastor Miles. "She has consistently and creatively used her gifts to reach people that I and the other pastors at the Rock would have a harder time ministering to."
So how did a senior marketing manager from Maine get involved in Deaf ministry?
"In the spring of 1996, my best friend Linda found out that her son was Deaf," said Michele, who works for Intuit. "I began to learn sign language to support her and her son, knowing that their world had now completely changed.
Later that year she took a course in American Sign Language, and eventually graduated from the Interpreter Program at Mesa College. "I have been involved with the Deaf Community ever since," she said.
She was attending Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego at the time. She began filling in for the existing interpreter.
"The first time in front of an audience I was so nervous I felt like throwing up. I was afraid I'd fall off the chair."
Then she was asked to be the leader of the ministry, and she started interpreting for Miles McPherson.
With deaf interpreting, "you have to become that person. You have to reflect his body language, his facial expressions and tone," Michele said.
That thought makes her chuckle, now that she has interpreted for Pastor Miles for 10 years.
"He's a natural storyteller. I just fell into his stories. Sometimes I can tell what he's going to say before he says it. Who would think I'd be in Miles' head so much? I'm a small town girl from Maine."
When Pastor Miles left Horizon to start the Rock, Michele felt she needed to stay at Horizon until 2002. In 2003 she got involved with the Billy Graham Crusade's preparations for reaching the deaf community. The organization's extensive services inspired her to dream about would be possible for a Deaf ministry at a church. "It gave me a passion for it. It made me want to help raise up Deaf Christian leaders to reach the community. Doing Deaf ministry was always a struggle at churches. Churches [usually] don't get it "
She began developing the Deaf ministry at the Rock. It is now the largest in San Diego County. She has planned social events with the help of other ministry members, and they also meet weekly for Bible study in Michele's home.
Her home, not incidentally, is anything but conventional.
First, a little background.
During a Miles Ahead crusade in 2003 in Kelowna, Canada, she started talking with Rock member Lisa Walker, a social worker with the County of San Diego, and an avid mentor and advocate for foster children. With Michele's support, Lisa launched Step Up, a Rock ministry that recruits and supports foster-kid mentors.
The two women talked about how difficult it is to find placements for deaf foster kids. With no licensed foster home in Southern California, Deaf children had to be moved to other states, "making reunification with their families really difficult," Michele said.
Involved in ministering in Mexico, she started to ponder opening a deaf orphanage there. But then she felt God was guiding her to something else right in San Diego County.
"God gave me a vision to buy a house and become a foster parent," Michele said, matter-of-factly. Despite a lot of people saying she would be biting off too much, Michele closed on a five-bedroom house in April 2006.
The home is licensed for up to six children, is the only one in Southern California. (A group home for Deaf children who need a higher level of care exists in the South Bay area of the county.) She has also established a non-profit to support the children and their future.
During her first full year of foster-parenting, the County of San Diego named Michele its Foster Parent of the Year in 2007.
Sarah was the first placement in May 2006. Michele and Sarah are hoping the legal adoption is final this month. Two sisters, Denisse and Stephanie, have joined them, as well as Miguel, the solitary male of the bunch.
Now, at 35, Michele is the foster mother of four teenagers.
Michele was born in 1973 in Germany while her parents were stationed there. She spent some of her childhood in Florida and Alaska, but most of her early years were near her grandparents in Maine.
Michele was saved when she was five years old through a backyard Bible club.
She witnessed to her mom, who accepted Christ one week later.
The family attended a small Baptist church where there were a lot of rulesno playing cards or listening to electronic guitar music. That, and a rocky relationship with her parents in her teen years, influenced her view of God as a remote deity she couldn't relate to.
"I saw him as a judge and not as my heavenly Father who loved me and cherished me," she said.
She had always loved working with children, and volunteered as a camp counselor and Bible teacher, as did her mom. She spent a couple of years as a nanny in New York City.
When she got tired of ice and snow, she and a friend decided to move to California. She arrived in San Diego on April 15, 1994, at 20 years old.
Not into the party scene, she was alone a lot. Her mother had heard a sermon by Mike McIntosh in Maine on the radio, and encouraged Michele to visit Horizon. Eventually she went to the evening service, and heard Miles.
Coming from that small Baptist church in Maine, she thought the church was "weird." Electronic guitars in worship; they raised their hands. "It was a culture shock," she said, laughing.
But she went back, and ended up "falling in love with God."
Michele says she fell in love with church again, too, and came to realize that God wasn't a controlling, judgmental father figure.
After she moved to the Rock Church, she jumped into ministry. With her leadership skills, she helped the Outreach department establish an application and mission-establishing process for Baby Rock ministries. She participated in international mission trips to Mexico, helped with most of the Miles Ahead crusade, and volunteered for the annual Toys for Joy event.
This year she took on the task of Toys for Joy Director. She and the team have expanded the event's scope beyond handing out toys.
"We were all inspired by the four days of ministry in Jamaica," she said, referring to Miles Ahead's ministry teams that repaired schools, provided medical care, and worked alongside the community in other service projects.
How does she juggle it all? She is a prime example of the Rock's DO Something DNA.
"I'm a New Englander. We get things done."