The idea struck Susan Plymell 10 years ago, when she was pastor of a church where a deaf boy attended services.
"I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a choir that could sign the music for him?'" she says. "I think sign language is such a beautiful language to begin with. I thought if you added music, it would be even more wonderful."
It is perhaps an unlikely blend, music with sign language. But Plymell put the two together five years ago as pastor of SonRise United Methodist Church in Pueblo, Colo., organizing a choir that signs the words to all the songs it performs.
She started the choir to reach out to deaf congregation members and raise awareness, but now it performs across the community, inspiring churches, community groups, schools and others with its music and synchronized signing. It is preparing for a performance on Easter at Pueblo's Riverwalk, a central community gathering place on the Arkansas River.
The 20-member choir of church and community members - some deaf, some from other congregations - rehearses two hours each week. It focuses primarily on contemporary Christian and gospel music but performs some secular tunes for community groups and schools.
Word has spread quickly about the choir. It makes a few performances each month - some as far as an hour away - for groups such as the local Shriners chapter and at the Pueblo Community College and area elementary schools. It also performs for special events at other churches and participates in the community's annual Fourth of July and Christmas parades.
"It's a real service to the deaf people," Plymell says. "It's an opportunity for them to actually participate in the music. ... For the hearing people, they love it because it's so beautiful to watch, and it enhances the music that's being played."
Plymell learned sign language as pastor of another church where a deaf boy attended services. When she joined SonRise United Methodist Church, which draws about 60 on an average Sunday, she became reacquainted with Donna Roberts, who had taken the same sign language class as Plymell years before. Roberts offered to direct the choir.
The choir enables her to share her beloved music with deaf friends, Roberts says.
"I feel for them because they can't hear music, and this is my way of sharing music with them," says Roberts, an interpreter for the deaf at Pueblo Community College. "They feel the vibrations, but putting the lyrics together â€¦ puts a different meaning to the music."
Tiffany Sterner, 14, who has had hearing problems since she was born, struggled with sign language until joining the choir with her mother. She has been with the choir for two years and is glad to be able to communicate with the deaf.
"I get to learn a new language, and my mom doesn't have to shout at me all the time when she talks to me," says Sterner, who eventually wants to nurture other children through serious health problems as a pediatrician. "It's a beautiful thing, and it's just interesting to watch."
Tiffany attends services at a Pentecostal church but joined the choir after her mom heard about it at a community event for the disabled. She says she enjoys visiting various congregations and learning about how other denominations worship. Her father, Doug Sterner, believes the choir has had another effect on his daughter.
"It also gives Tiff a sense of purpose, that she does something that is important and makes a difference," he says.
Plymell believes the choir has succeeded in raising awareness. She notes many of the choir's members joined after they saw a performance and then signed up for sign language lessons. She feels the choir's movement to the music inspires audiences.
"It just adds more depth to the words," she says. "It adds almost a physical and emotional response to the words."
She believes the choir has reached beyond its original goals.
"It connects unchurched people with the churched people of different denominations," she says. "We're a truly diverse group of people, and that's really wonderful to see."
*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.