On Sunday morning, the church pianist strikes the first chord and everyone stands. Some sway, some lift their hands, some clench the chair in front of them and follow the lyrics flashing on the screen. Angel and Xiao Yu Guilaran turn to their parents to translate.
Angel and Xiao Yu are two of the 48 million people living in the United States with significant hearing loss, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication.
The majority of deaf people, an estimated 98% internationally, remain unchurched, making them one of the most unchurched people groups in the world. The International Mission Board did not recognize them as a people group until four years ago.
“Most churches don’t understand the need, or they think, ‘Why do we need that? We don’t have deaf people coming,’” said Lesley Guilaran, Angel and Xiao Yu’s mother and wife of Union physics professor Fonsie Guilaran. “But, honestly, if churches would have interpreters, the deaf would come.”
One group on campus is reaching out to the deaf community in Jackson. Every Monday at 4 p.m., they meet in room 41 of the BAC.
“Signing, usually your right hand is dominant,” Ashley Moon said, standing at the front of the classroom. “So, ‘Ama…zing’” – waving a slightly cupped hand in front of her face with each syllable – “‘grace.’”
Moon held her right hand upward and to the right in a loose fist, then twisted her hand and quickly opened the fingers, like letting something drop on the right side of her head.
“We pretend like God is always there,” she said, gesturing to the air above the right side of her head. “So when we sign ‘Him’ or something coming from Him, like ‘grace,’ we sign in that direction.”
As the daughter of missionaries, Moon grew up in the Middle East. In high school, she attended an international boarding school in Germany, where her dorm sister encouraged her to join the school’s “sign team.”
“It was always really small, we barely had guys in it,” the sophomore math education major remembered. “It started out just being something really fun for me, but it ended up being, in some ways, a big part of my worship.”
Translating a song from English to American sign language requires more finesse than translating words from one language to another. Constructing the lyrics into sign language almost becomes like choreographing a dance. It requires synchronizing the signs to the song’s beat and rhythm as well as changing the lyrics to fit the vernacular of American sign language, which does not include figurative language or follow the same grammatical rules as English.
“It says, ‘In His word, my hope secures,’ but we couldn’t find the right word for ‘secure,’” Moon said, using Amazing Grace as an example for translating music to sign language. “So we ended up saying, ‘In the Bible’ and we sign ‘Jesus book,’ we say ‘my hope is confident’…Signing in song is more sensitive to rhythm and the beat because people can’t hear the music, so sometimes it’s interpreted in a more artistic way.”
At the start of every meeting, Becca Hankins, a sophomore social work major, teaches the group a basic phrase in sign language, such as “my name is.”
For Hankins, the secretary of the club, the interest in sign language started last year when she took Union’s ASL class.
“The class was really impactful,” Hankins said. “It was full immersion. We couldn’t talk in there; we had to sign.”
The class spent time interacting with students at the West Tennessee School for the Deaf, which made Hankins aware of the need to communicate with the deaf. When Moon approached her with the idea for Adoration, she quickly agreed to join.
“Whenever someone would see that I knew how to sign, it made their day,” Hankins said. “They would be so excited because there’s not a whole lot of people here who do know sign language…I’ve seen worship with ASL before and it can be really impactful and really touching because you’re visibly seeing what these words are meaning.”
Rather than lifting her hands or clapping along to an upbeat praise song, Moon often signs to herself during worship, her mind working quickly to change the words projected above the heads of the worship leaders into graceful hand motions.
“It provides a way for me to worship God in a different way, in a more visual and more expressive way,” Moon said. “Sometimes if you sing a worship song again and again, the words start to lose meaning…the signs really help you concentrate on it word by word…and to kind of see the worship song in a new sense, in a fresh way.”
Moon pinned posters advertising the first Adoration meeting to bulletin boards across campus, hoping that five or ten people would show up. She could not believe it when 17 students appeared in BAC 41 and even more began to talk to her about wanting to join.
“I’m getting a sense it’s going to be bigger than what I had expected and I’m excited to see how many people are interested and how people are responding to it,” Moon said. “I’m super excited to see where God takes this and I’m excited for the work that God will do through this.”
The group will perform in chapel on Nov. 30. and, as the group learns more songs, plans to perform at the school for the deaf as well as different churches around Jackson.
“There’s a huge deaf community here in Jackson and we should learn how to communicate with these people,” Hankins said. “And to be able to worship in another language, it just brings the community together.”
The community is slowly beginning to realize the need for a deaf ministry. Englewood Baptist Church, which the Guilarans attend, launched Special Buddies, a ministry for people with special needs. An interpreter now attends Sunday school with Angel and Xiao Yu to help them communicate.
“As any parent will tell you, when you love their children you are loving them,” Fonsie said. “Whether they know it or not, students participating in an organization like Adoration are loving my children simply by learning the language necessary to communicate with them.”