25-year-old signing choir is more than a passing gesture

Signs from Heaven choir members perform at Conway UMC's annual Conway Days Festival. Photo from Mary Harris.

ORLANDO – Mary Harris was looking for a sign from God 25 years ago, and now she sees hundreds every week.

Harris helped form the Signs from Heaven choir at Conway UMC. The choir’s deaf and low-vision performers sign regularly at the Orlando church.

“I know sometimes it sounds crazy to people, but this was a God-given mission,” said Harris, who is neither deaf nor blind nor related to anyone with those challenges.

“I had been praying about it for about a year, and then in 1990 all the doors just opened. God just said this is the way you will go.”

“I had been heavily involved with United Methodist Women and I really felt the call to be in mission somewhere, so I went deeply into prayer and thought maybe I would work with women and children in the hospital, but I don’t like hospitals so that didn’t work,” Harris said with a laugh. “There were all types of things I asked God about, but those doors were shut.”

That all changed when Harris attended a Florida Conference district planning meeting in Orlando in 1990.

“We all could pick different things to go to in the afternoon, and there was someone there who was talking about how to start a deaf ministry in your church.” There Harris met the late Elsa Ellis and Giffin Crowder.

All three would later attend a “silent weekend” in St. Augustine, an immersion course in sign language. Crowder offered to teach Harris how to sign and she was hooked.

"I went straight into a committee meeting at (Conway Methodist) and our pastor (Archie Buie) was so supportive, we started our sign language classes on Tuesday night with Giffin.” The Signs from Heaven choir also started the same year.

That first class, a basic signing class, had four members. Today, Conway hosts beginners, intermediate and interpreter classes with three different instructors drawing 28 students every Tuesday. The classes have become popular with members of other churches that Harris encourages to start deaf ministries.

The five- to six-member Conway choir performs during select holidays and other times during the year.

“But at Christmas time, we can have anywhere from 12 to 24 members of the choir,” Harris said. “I just try to keep it simple so beginners can also participate.”

In a choir made up of deaf and low-vision members, it’s important that the director be situated so that everyone can see and copy the hand signs, she said.

One choir member who was deaf and blind also participated by a unique method of signaling.

“We would have someone stand behind him and I would give that person certain signs. For example, ‘hallelujah’ would be a tap on his left shoulder blade, or at Christmas a tap on his right shoulder blade would be ‘manger.’ The person sitting behind him would give him that signal on the back and he would know what sign to make at the appropriate time.” 

For Harris, who founded the classes and choir 25 years ago, the impact of the program has been profound.

“Just realizing you are in the place God wants you to be is just inspiring.”

Signing is about a lot more than just the words, Harris said.

“Don’t just sign the words. Don’t perform. This should be spiritual. For me, when I sign music it takes me to a different level of worship where it’s just God and I. It’s on a different plane.”

– Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in Lake Wales.

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