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September 18, 2004

Sign of a moving spirit

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - Sep 18, 2004

American Sign Language expresses a silent church choir's 'joyful noise' at Shady Grove United Methodist

Saturday, September 18, 2004

When the Shady Grove United Methodist Church Prophecy Choir sings, you hear silence.

When the choir stands in front of the Glen Allen congregation, 23 pairs of hands move in graceful dancelike motions to glorify God.

"Sign language is a form of dance with the upper body, using the face and the hands," said Bobbie Stein, whose interest in dance led her to join Prophecy.

"This is just one more way to pray," said Elizabeth Scribner, minister of music and arts. "Our hope is to be welcoming to all people so they know they have a place to come to."

Prophecy will sign "In This Very Room" during tomorrow's 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m. services. A soloist will sing the words. It will be the third time the choir, which formed in the spring, has performed. The congregation also will sign "Sing Praise to God."

Shady Grove also will host a choir from Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, which will participate in the services. The visiting choir will sign "The Lord's Prayer" with sung music, using a hearing person as a cuer. They also will sign "I'm Enjoying Jesus" with a drumbeat.

"This Sunday is really exciting. It gives me an opportunity to communicate with a group of the population that I haven't been able to communicate with before," said Julie Benkovitz, a member of Prophecy.

Deaf ministry is becoming more important in the United Methodist Church, said Martha E. Stokes, director of disabilities and lay life and work in the denomination's Virginia Conference.

"Only about 2 percent of the deaf are churched. This can be a great mission outreach for churches," she said.

The denomination has published a manual, "Signs of Solidarity: Ministries with People Who Are Deaf, Late-Deafened, Hard of Hearing and Deaf-Blind." It's designed as a resource for churches whose members are interested in becoming more accessible to people who are deaf or hearing-impaired.

"When you are deaf, it completely changes how you interact with your world and how others interact with you. There can be problems of isolation and poor self-image," said Suzanne Hanky, who taught sign language to the Prophecy Choir. She is a parenting and family counselor who teaches sign language for fun.

"Sign language lends itself to artistic expression because your hands form a very accurate picture of what you want to say," Hanky said.

"This church is so eager to serve God and show reverence for their neighbors. In my opinion that's the truest form of service to God. They are always looking for new ways to serve," she said.

The idea for Prophecy came out of workshops last year at Shady Grove. A workshop on sign language drew a large response, Scribner said. "I watched everybody sign 'What a Wonderful World.' It touched me to see people doing it. So often prayer is in the head. But to see people use their bodies is so moving," she added.

Singing in sign language appeals to all ages. Prophecy Choir members range in age from 5 to the late 60s, and they participate for different reasons.

Nine-year-old Kaylea Wrenn says it's interesting. For Liza Alejandro, it's a learning experience. It will help Mary Beth Fager communicate with a deaf godchild. For Pat Begley, it's a spiritual experience.

Sign language isn't easy to learn, Hanky said. "The choir learns the verbal line to a song. I show them how to translate the line into American Sign Language. I explain what each sign means. You don't translate every word and some signs have multiple meanings."

For example, "in this very room" is signed, "in room here," she said.

Wednesday night, members of the Prophecy Choir rehearsed "In This Very Room" for the fourth time. Their goal, which they accomplished, was to sign the song without cues from Hanky.

And Scribner gave the choir a few more instructions.

"Don't worry about your hair. Don't worry about your clothes. Make sure you connect with seven people and smile at them. You are the eyes of Jesus," she said.

Contact Alberta Lindsey at (804) 649-6754 or
Sunday Services: 8, 9:30, 11 a.m.

Shady Grove United Methodist Church

4825 Pouncey Tract Road

(804) 360-2600

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