The Power of Worship in Sign Language
t always happens after I interpret a church service into American Sign Language (ASL) for deaf attendees. I rise out of my chair, relieved that my brain no longer has to function in two languages. I chat with the deaf people and others on my team. If someone who does not know sign language wants to meet them, I act as an interpreter.
Then, as expected, it happens - people come to tell me how much the interpreting moved and inspired them. “They” can be anyone from the congregation: small children, college students, baby boomers, the elderly. I also get a lot of positive feedback when I interpret a song in sign language or combine signing with dance.
I have also become aware that when I serve as an interpreter, many people in the congregation are watching me and feel inspired by it. Somehow, sign language fills a need to experience the gospel in a fresh new way.
Sign language in the performing arts
In the deaf community, sign language is valued as an integral part of deaf culture. Performing arts groups are creating new art forms by signing to music (usually with a loud, vibrating bass so the deaf can “feel” the music). Dance companies are incorporating sign into their performances, and some amateur groups focus solely on combining sign and dance.
Like dance, the beauty of movement in sign language has enormous emotional appeal. Song lyrics such as "When I Survey the Wonderous Cross" or “Amazing Grace” in sign language can bring a tear to the eye.
When I worked at an agency for the deaf and hard of hearing, we received many calls from schools and churches, especially at Christmas and year end, asking for a deaf person to volunteer to teach a choir or dance group how to sign a song.
The problem with inexperienced signers
Sometimes an inexperienced signer who has taken a few classes is called upon to sign a song or to teach ASL to a children’s choir or youth group. Problems can arise when this happens. One year, my daughter was showed me the signs she had been taught for a children’s choir presentation at a regional church conference. Some of the signs were wrong, and to my horror, one was actually a graphic sexual sign. I did speak to the people involved about it.
Unfortunately, some people do not take these kinds of violations seriously. They shrug or make the excuse that there are no deaf people in the audience. My response is that this is someone’s language and we should treat it with the same respect as we would a presentation in a foreign language.
When vocalists sing in another language, such as the Spanish verse in the song “Via Delarosa,” they try to sing Spanish accurately so that no one is offended by their rendition. Sign language, however, does not always get the same respect. Some supposedly “signed” songs hardly resemble true ASL.
Sometimes sign is considered “cute” and “fun,” which it certainly can be, but it is also a living language. ASL is one of the most commonly used languages in North America. Sign language classes are bulging at the seams as more fascinated people than ever choose to study this language.
The difference between a signer and an interpreter
So who is qualified to present sign language as a form of worship?
Sign language looks deceptively easy. Some signs are natural and iconic, like the ones for combing hair or brushing teeth. Most signs are based on concepts, however, so these concepts need to be understood and used correctly. For example, the English word “run” has many meanings: jogging, a run in a stocking, controlling, running for political office, etc. Some concepts are clearly displayed, such as the sign for “crucify” is a fist pounding the palm of the hand. Others are more abstract, i.e. the sign for Bible is “Jesus-book.”
Deaf ministries usually make a distinction between someone who is a “signer” – a person who knows some sign language but is still in the learning stages, and an “interpreter” who is not only highly skilled in ASL, but also is trained in interpreting techniques. In a number of congregations, signers are the only ones available to provide interpreting services for the deaf in church services. They quickly grow in their craft if they are taking classes, volunteering in the deaf community, and accepting direction from the deaf people they serve.
A signer is usually not qualified to handle the complexities of presenting ASL as special music without help from the deaf and skilled interpreters. Some worship music is challenging to present, even for those with advanced ASL knowledge.
Signers need to be careful that they are expressing the correct concept to the deaf and get the right sign for their presentation. The English word “call” for example, can have a number of different meanings – a mother calling her child from the steps of her house, a call on the telephone, or a call to religious life. All have different signs.
There may of course, people who are skilled signers who are not interested in interpreting. They probably grew up with deaf parents or family members.
Working with a deaf mentor
Deaf people are very passionate about ASL. They also want people to understand the unique lifestyle and culture they have developed in a world without sound. They are generally eager to help those presenting sign language as either special music or with dance.
In the past, I have participated in deaf community outreach programs as a volunteer interpreter. I would accompany a deaf person to a school or children’s program such as girl guides.
Children are always very curious about what it is like to be deaf and want to learn signs. The deaf person would sometimes teach a choir how to sign a song, and then sit back beaming with pride when “her” kids did well at a concert.
Signers should work directly with the deaf instead of relying on books or videos when putting together a presentation. Books and videos can be a useful learning tool to a certain extent, but the signer will learn many new things that help them to grow in their ministry and build their relationship with the deaf. The deaf are delighted both to assist those who serve them and to be part of making sure that their language is properly presented.
Sign language is not based on the English language, but evolved naturally in the deaf ommunity. When people choose to put signs in English word order, the signing is not only inaccurate, but is missing many of the grammatical elements that make it unique and beautiful. A sign can change direction to indicate a subject moving in a certain direction, for example.. Hand shapes can become pronouns or represent people or objects. There are no real prepositions in ASL because signers can use hand shapes to indicate movement and placement, i.e to and from, over, or under.
There are many resources available for worship leaders who wish to incorporate sign language as a vehicle to express worship in their services. YouTube has some signed Christian songs ranging from the amateurish to near professional and some tutorials. Many denominations also have special deaf ministries - some with web pages. There are also numerous deaf churches with deaf or signing pastors in Canada and the United States.
© 2015 Carola Finch