COLUMBIA — Nearly a dozen men and women stood and performed before the congregation at Parkade Baptist Church one Sunday last month the last measures of a song of praise.
The five fingers on their left hands were spread wide. Their right hands were balled into a fist with the thumb extended. In unison, the group pressed their right hands into the palms of their left, as if stamping approval.
It was the American Sign Language motion for “amen.”
From the congregation, hundreds of hands rose into the air, shaking and wiggling in support, creating the sign for applause. The warm reception demonstrated the congregation’s acceptance of a group that is still finding its place in the community.
The silent chorus before the congregation is part of Parkade Baptist Church’s deaf ministry.
The ministry, a group seven strong on most weeks, consists of a Sunday school class called “Talking Hands” and interpreters for the church service.
There is a strong desire to grow. Plans include expanding programming events and establishing a formal choir.
Usually the small group signs from seats in the far right corner of the church, close to the front.
A formal performance is rare for the group. The one in early September was a special presentation to highlight the ministry’s mission to involve the deaf community in the church, as well as to share a different style of prayer.
Leading the group that morning was Eunice Morrow, a congregation member who began the ministry three years ago. It started as weekly sign language lessons in her home and grew from informal meetings to an established program.
“I’ve known how to sign a little bit through the years — I have a deaf sister,” Morrow said. “And I had some friends who asked me to teach them how to sign, so I did. And we just had fun with it.”
The group expanded from two to four, then disbanded for a while. With different schedules, the members of the group, quite simply, had other things to do.
Then in 2007, a woman looking to practice signing songs during Sunday services at Parkade Baptist contacted Morrow, who said she was more than happy to help.
Meetings resumed, and other church members joined the group, including several who can hear. Morrow said they enjoyed not only learning American Sign Language but also the culture of the deaf community.
Morrow began to interpret the service for the hearing members of the group, just for practice. She said it helped her become more comfortable signing, in case anyone who was deaf came to church.
“We weren’t set up for a deaf ministry," Morrow said.
Then inquiries began to surface on the Internet and over the phone. So, she went to the pastor to talk about it.
Until the interest began to build, she hadn't really considered the possibility of a deaf ministry at Parkade Baptist.
"I thought that God was doing something here. Not that we were planning on having a deaf ministry or anything, but you could just kind of see the handwriting on the wall,” Morrow said.
She discovered that other Columbia churches had disbanded their ministries for one reason or another, leaving a void she felt needed to be filled.
In 2009, she invited several members of the community who are deaf to a Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the church. She wasn’t surprised, but rather impressed, that five people attended.
Since then, according to Morrow and other members, things began falling smoothly into place, despite the lack of similar ministries in the area as models.
“I really feel like God has laid the plan, and my prayers have always been for God to use me,” Morrow said.
“If there’s any difficulty, it’s been within myself, because this is new to me. So I just said, ‘God, if you’re wanting me to do this, I’m going to need help.’”
Christy Johnson had been among the first to join Morrow’s sign language lessons and has become one of the most active members of the ministry.
An admiration for the expressive nature of American Sign Language led her to the group initially, she said.
“If you think about how you say the words, 'it broke my heart'... it means so much more than the simple words that come out of your mouth,” Johnson said.
Since learning how to sign from Morrow, she said, God has brought people who are deaf into her life. Before joining the ministry, she had never known anyone who was deaf.
At a holiday parade Johnson and her husband attended, she discovered the woman seated next to her was deaf, and the two were able to sign a conversation.
“The thing that is so wonderful is that God placed me shoulder to shoulder, right next to this deaf person," Johnson said.
"She could have stood near any number of people who don’t know how to sign, but God placed me there.”
From the church’s hearing community, the reactions have been positive. Virginia Dooley, who signs the music portion of the morning service, said she is excited to be involved.
“It gets me in the door of another culture I might otherwise miss,” Dooley said.
Morrow and other members of the ministry are encouraged by the congregation’s acceptance of the group but say that as with any new community, there has been a bit of apprehension.
“We’ve had some reactions of people not understanding when the deaf sign the music," Johnson said.
Some congregants wonder how music can be signed if part of the audience can't hear it, Johnson said, but it's a way for them to be actively part of the service.
Morrow is hopeful that the program will grow in the next few years, as more people learn about the ministry.
It’s not unusual for programs like this to start small, she said. It takes a few years for people to feel comfortable enough get involved.
The Sunday school class "Talking Hands" is still just five or six people who meet in a space between two moveable partitions in a multipurpose room at the church. A TV playing a video of a signed sermon sits at the head of the class as a virtual teacher.
When the video ended one recent Sunday, Johnson filled in for Morrow as discussion leader. The rest of the group watched patiently as she worked slowly and deliberately to find the signs for the questions she wanted to ask.
Johnson said that whenever she communicates with members of the ministry who are deaf, they have worked with her to help her form the words. They are very understanding, she said.
“If you want to communicate, they’ll spend time with you,” Johnson said.
Rhonda Faucett, another member of the ministry, agreed.
“I see God’s love as they’re patient with us with our signing.”
Janie Bohon was in the first group that met with Morrow. She said the deaf ministry has been a great way to include the members in the worship service, social events and volunteer opportunities throughout the church.
Many in the congregation have come to realize how much the deaf community has to offer.
"They don’t have to be separate," Bohon said. "They can be part of our worship service just as much as the hearing people can.”
When Sunday school class ends each week, the group makes its way to the service, where Morrow sits in front of the pews, interpreting the sermon, prayers and announcements.
She is signing for a group that includes Mary Kistner, who comes to church with her husband, Kenneth. They regularly attend both Sunday School and the worship services.
During a brief interview before the service Morrow interpreted for them. The Kistners said they feel welcome at the church where they are encouraged to become more involved.
“We hope more deaf people come to church," Mary Kistner signed. "I think hearing people need to learn more about deaf people, and we need to teach the hearing people how to sign.”
The ministry has not only given insight into a new community for the congregation at Parkade Baptist but has also handed the church a rich opportunity to serve, Johnson said.
“We’re trying to reach out to people who wouldn’t necessarily get to hear about God.”