IM this article to a friend!

January 1, 2005

Grace in motion

From: Modesto Bee, CA - Jan 1, 2005

Modesto praise team performs Christian songs in sign language


By her own admission, Melanie Guertin can't sing. Yet she is a member of Echoes of Grace, a Modesto praise team that performs Christian songs.

"We basically sing with our hands," said Guertin, 40, whose group performs contemporary Christian, country, gospel and hymns in sign language. As they interpret with their hands, members also use their bodies and faces to express the feelings of fear, anger and joy conveyed in the songs, as well as the ebb and flow of the music coming from a nearby CD player.

"I feel like God is using us to bring the song to life," said Guertin, the mother of a teenage son. Through movement and facial expressions, members also convey their adoration of God. "You see the praise on our faces," Guertin said. "We want to show others, to join us to feel his love. It is a joyful feeling."

Echoes of Grace, made up of four members of Modesto Free Will Baptist Church — Guertin, Sandra Croney, Bethany Croney and Deanna Garcia — formed about two years ago. Though all four can hear, each has some experience with sign language, the deaf or hearing impaired.

Sandra Croney, for example, has worked for Relay Services for the Deaf, and Guertin's former mother-in-law is deaf. Bethany Croney, 18, attends California State University, Fresno, majoring in deaf education. All four have studied American Sign Language.

They perform at churches, youth rallies, camps and coffeehouses throughout the area, including in Modesto, Turlock, Stockton, Placerville and Fairfield. They recently performed for a deaf congregation at Modesto's Sherwood Bible Church headed by pastor Andy Morales.

Morales, 62, has been deaf since suffering an electrical shock and coma at age 13.

He wouldn't miss an Echoes of Grace performance. "I love their songs," Morales said. "Especially 'Amazing Grace,' which is one of my favorites, because I was once lost, and now I understand fully what plans God had for me."

Such performances serve as a Christian outreach to the deaf community, whose members sometimes feel alienated from church. "I would expect (those who see Echoes of Grace) to sense the Holy Spirit is among them and that God is opening his arms for each and every one to come back home to him," Morales said.

Echoes of Grace does not perform only for the hearing impaired, however. During a recent performance, most of the audience could hear.

"There was something very spiritual about it that transcended the sign language, the English," said Glenda Scott, 53, of Modesto, a Ceres elementary school teacher. "They invited the presence of a living God to be among us. You could feel the presence of the living God there."

Renee Renicker, 22, of Modesto, a teachers aide for deaf and hearing-impaired thirdand fourth-graders, found the performance uplifting. The sign language helped communicate the songs' full meaning, she said.

"It was very obvious that (members) understood and lived what the songs were saying," Renicker added. "It was clear it was a meaningful part of their life and that they believed it."

Because the movement is visual, people pay close attention to the songs, Guertin said. Even those who don't know sign language usually pick up the signs for "I love you" or for "Jesus" — touching the middle finger of each hand to the palm of the opposing hand, mimicking the wounds of his crucifixion.

"People see the word, instead of just hearing it," Guertin said. "If it causes one person to stop and look and it implants in their brain, then we are doing what God wants us to do."

Though each woman translates songs through her own interpretation, members of Echoes of Grace practice to synchronize their timing and gestures. They practice together two to three hours a week.

Guertin said she feels the Lord leads them. "There have been times I've said, 'Lord, I don't understand why you want this song; we're having a hard time getting this,'" she said.

"All of a sudden, when we get up to do a song for people, he really blesses us. The words come out of our hands, literally."

Feeling that God has used them to share his blessings is the most rewarding part of being in Echoes of Grace, Guertin said.

She hopes Echoes of Grace also helps bring hearing and deaf people together.

"God literally takes down the barriers between age, sex, handicaps, denominations," she observed. "We're just up there praising the Lord. ... God's love is there, you just don't feel there is any difference between you and this other person before God. You are all children of God, all there to worship and praise."

Upcoming Echoes of Grace performances: Jan. 9, 10 a.m., Third Day Christian Center, 906 Imperial Ave., Modesto. Feb. 25, March 25 and April 22, 7-9 p.m., Kingdom Koffee, 1442 N. Carpenter Road, Modesto.

For information about Echoes of Grace, call 530-0983 or e-mail For information about Sherwood Bible Church's deaf services, meeting at 505 Floyd Ave., Modesto, call 572-1128.

Bee staff writer Amy White can be reached at 578-2318 or

Copyright © 2005 The Modesto Bee.