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December 6, 2003

Joyful 'noise' has to be seen to be heard

From: North County Times, CA - Dec 6, 2003

By: AGNES DIGGS - Staff Writer

The sounds of silence swirled like music around a choir called "Love in Motion," as the members rehearsed for an upcoming concert. Watching the silent, elegant choreography of hand and body movements sing or tell a story, the listener doesn't need to be able to hear to understand.

The choir, which was established in 1990, offers a form of liturgical worship using choreographed American Sign Language.

"We'd like to make a joyful noise, but we sing to the top of our fingertips instead," choir director B.J. Jensen said with a laugh.

The signing choir is part of the Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church music department. Choir members hail from 10 different area churches.

"We are a choir of grade-schoolers to grandparents," Jensen said.

They have no deaf people in their church, Jensen said, and on the surface it might seem odd to have a signing choir in a church without deaf people. But they found that it helped give hearing people a deeper understanding of the songs that were sung.

"It got great response from the congregation, and we've been doing it ever since," she said.

A quiet start

The adage that children should be seen and not heard bore fruit unexpectedly for Jensen during her growing-up years in Illinois.

"I started signing," she said. "I started miming. I started doing all the quiet things."

Eventually she took formal training. The idea came from a former church choir director. When a choir was first suggested to her, Jensen, now 58, told the director, "Someday if I get good enough, I might join it," and the director told her, "No, you're going to direct it."

Jensen happily allowed herself to be recruited to be the group's first and, for a while, only member. Her first performance was at a Sunday service. "I was not one to sign in public, " she said. "So it was pretty intimidating to me to do that. Now I love it. It's my passion."

Her husband, Doug, also joined as the number of members jumped to six. The choir has released a video interpreting hymns and contemporary songs.

There's a lot of drama in signing, and for the upcoming event, choir members will be in costume, acting out a portion of the Christmas Nativity. They don't vocalize during performances, but are often accompanied by music from CDs or other performers.

Jeanie Lopez, 45, the group's assistant director, does most of the translation and choreography for the choir.

"We take English songs, and when we interpret it into sign language, not only do we want it to make sense, we want it to be visually appealing," she said.

Easier said than done. It's also important to make sure the translated song is saying what it was intended to say and still be visually appealing.

Why signing?

The most difficult aspect of the ministry is helping hearing people understand the whys and wherefores of a signing choir.

"Hearing people don't always understand why you translate music to deaf people who can't hear it anyhow," Lopez said. Hearing people feel an emotion when they hear music, she said: If it's happy, they feel happy and if it's sad they feel sad. The signing adds a higher dimension to the experience, she said.

"There's a whole other realm God gives us through music. And we want to give the same experience to deaf people. A lot of people can't hear, but they understand the impact music has on people who can hear it. It's a difficult ministry to understand, but it becomes clear once you see us."

Lopez first saw religious signing many years ago when attending a small church in Spring Valley and a deaf family attended services. She just fell in love with that aspect of worship, she said. Five years ago, though she was already in the signing choir, she feels God was calling her to a higher level of accountability when a deaf woman attended her church and needed more than an interpreter to enjoy the services. She went back to school to advance her knowledge in the proper way to use ASL and, within that framework, religious signing. The religious terminology is different in the same way that medical or legal parlance would differ, she said.

'The best gift'

The desire to participate in the signing ministry drew Jamie Cummings, 43, of Escondido to the group three years ago. Cummings learned signed language from Jensen, but she was already familiar with the sign language alphabet, which she and her sister had taught each other as grade-schoolers from a book. After joining the choir, Cummings took classes online at Palomar College to enhance her skills.

"I'm far from fluent," said Cummings, a third-grade school teacher. "It's a foreign language and it takes between eight and 20 years to master language, so I'm still new at it."

Her daughter, Makayla, 9, is the youngest member of the group. She joined six months after her mom, telling Cummings she "wanted to know the Lord better." Cummings' husband, Douglas, knows some sign language and was in a concert once, but he mostly watches their son C.J. while Cummings is with the group.

The choir is like a second family to her, Cummings said. Next to marrying her husband and having her children, it's probably the single most life-changing thing she has ever done.

"The fact that we get to do this together is the best gift," she said. "And we get to give it back to God, whether we're alone together signing in a group or in public. It's just an amazing gift."

The group has taken its ministry throughout America, from signing the National Anthem for Padres baseball games to conventions in Washington, D.C. It is scheduled to perform locally in three concerts on Sunday. They are also scheduled to perform at the Long Beach Aquarium in January at the Disability Awareness Festival.

About 175 people have passed through the choir's ranks since it began. The average membership stands at 25, Jensen said. Most are adults, many of whom joined because they wanted to learn sign language.

The group has birthed six similar choirs, Jensen said. Some former members have gone on to earn sign language certificates, and one went on to become a pastor to the deaf at a Texas church.

"My love is just in signing music," Jensen said. "I've always done it. More or less, that's how I communicate with God."

For information about the choir, visit the Web site at or call (858) 486-1085.

"Love in Motion" Performances

Date: December 7

The Church at Rancho Bernardo

"Christmas Jam" concert

Time: 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Place: 11740 Bernardo Plaza Court, San Diego

Phone: (858) 592-2434

Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church

Time: 4 p.m.

Place: 17010 Pomerado Road, San Diego

Phone: (858) 487-0811

Choir information: Visit the Web site at or call (858) 486-1085

Contact staff writer Agnes Diggs at (760) 740-3511 or