New Beginnings’ sign language choir reaches out to community

BOILING SPRINGS—New Beginnings United Methodist Church has recently organized a Sign Language Choir to minister not only to the congregation, but also to serve as an outreach choir.

Jeannie Smith, the director of traditional music at New Beginnings, began the choir in October 2018 as a way to include church members who felt they didn’t have the talent to sing, but wanted to be involved in the music program. Unlike more traditional handbell choirs, members don’t need to know how to read music, and if members miss a few practices, it doesn’t throw off the entire group.

Joyful Hands of Praise—or JHoP, as they like to be called—is a multigenerational choir for teenagers through senior adults and performs on a quarterly basis for both the traditional and contemporary worship services on Sunday mornings. Now that there is a larger repertoire, the group has begun an outreach program, performing at area nursing homes and community special events. These concerts also include solo acts as well as teaching the audience several signs to “sing” along with the group.

“We love going out into the community to share not only God’s love, but to let everyone know about the wonderful, exciting things that are happening at our church,” Smith said, noting this type of community involvement is easier than taking a singing choir because there is no need to carry a lot of equipment or arrange for a piano. “All we need is my phone and our Bluetooth speaker, and we are ready to go.”

The group started last fall with 14 interested individuals and now has 24 on the roll. Not everyone is able to participate year-round, but during outreach programs, they still perform the songs they have learned.

“People are so busy these days, it’s difficult to commit to a group that meets on a weekly basis. We do have practice every Monday evening, but I also upload tutorials to our YouTube channel so the members can practice at home,” Smith said. “I also am available between church services to work with individuals who feel they need a little extra.”

When teaching JHoP the signs used in songs, Smith takes it step by step. First they analyze the lyrics, choose which words will be signed, then learn them through association and repetition. It usually takes about four weeks to learn a new song because few members have experience in sign language.

Smith sees this choir as a springboard for many possibilities for the church. If the group gets too large, it can split by starting a second group with just the youth. That group would do more upbeat, contemporary songs using larger motions and some footwork. It could also attract more hearing-impaired persons to the church, creating the need to hire an interpreter for services. Although the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind is in Spartanburg County, there are only four or five churches in the area that have deaf ministries.

Regardless of the future, JHoP is enjoying the present.

“I feel badly when I need to cancel rehearsals because the members are so disappointed. Some even have said it is the highlight of their week,” Smith said.

To contact Smith or to inquire about scheduling them for a performance, email [email protected] or call 828-289-9039.

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