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In Kenya, Sign Language Choir Helps Churches Embrace Deaf Culture

Over three decades, the Zion Praise Team has put its faith on display and challenged misconceptions around people with disabilities.
In Kenya, Sign Language Choir Helps Churches Embrace Deaf Culture
Image: Fredrick Nzwili / RNS
Zion Praise Team

On a recent afternoon on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Church, young men and women danced in a semicircle, swinging to the beat of drums. The group’s leader gestured intently as she marched, signing to the dancers, all silent but for a few muted sounds as they rehearsed the hymn “Oh How He Loves Me.”

The group belongs to St. Andrew’s deaf choir, known as the Zion Praise Team. The choir masters hymns and worship songs in American Sign Language, thrilling congregations at worship services in the Presbyterian church and other Christian churches around this East African country.

“The group knows its strength is in the music,” said Judy Kihumba, 32, a hearing disability ministry coordinator at the church. “When practicing on this ground, they find more space to move freely.”

The deaf singers are freed spiritually as well. “When they sing, it’s a soul-edifying activity, its therapy for them and it’s also a way of worship. They feel closer to God through this,” said Kihumba.

Kihumba, who was named to the BBC’s list of 100 top inspiring and influential women in the world last year, is the founder of Talking Hands, Listening Eyes on Postpartum Depression, an organization that helps deaf women navigate motherhood, advocating for their maternal and mental health.

Participation in the choir is also an avenue of religious education for its members. Being deaf, Kihumba explained, “means they don’t interact and understand the Bible at a young age because their family members don’t know sign language.”

It’s also liberating simply having the stage to themselves. “The deaf love singing since it’s the only way they don’t get interruptions. It also comes from the deepest point of their hearts,” she added.

Among the group’s most popular songs, according to choir members, is “Amazing Grace,” which they say shows how God always cares for them.

Priscah Odongo, an IT technician who has been the choir’s leader for the last five years, said her tasks include ensuring that the singers’ signs stay in sync with the chords being played. Odongo joined the choir in 2015, she said, to worship through singing.

“I also wanted to prove to the world that people with hearing impairment have talents and can do things just like the hearing,” said Odongo, 36. “I feel good when leading the choir during Sunday worship services or any other place we are called to.”

The deaf choir’s success is clarifying widely held misconceptions that people with disabilities are a burden to society.

“The ministry of Zion Choir debunks the myth that persons with disabilities are there to receive without giving back to the community,” said Sudan Nderitu, a long-serving hearing member of the choir, who works with people with disabilities professionally.

She explains that the choir members have a variety of talents and skills—they are electrical technicians, carpentry workers, and IT experts, as well as dressmakers and tailors. “We wear uniforms made by one of us,” said Nderitu, who adds that she advises the deaf members to introduce themselves in full. “I tell them to say who they are, what they can do and what skills they possess.”

The choir was started in 1992 by Kum Hee Moon, a Korean missionary who had founded Young Nak Church of the Deaf in Nairobi. Five years later, that congregation moved to St. Andrew’s, and the choir was integrated into St. Andrew’s music ministry, participating in parish events such as the Music Week.

Lucy Kahaki has been singing with the choir since its founding, when she was barely in her 40s. Now 71, Kahaki finds peace singing with people half her age. Age doesn’t count, she said, as her energy when singing matches that of youthful members.

“Singing is my passion. I sing to praise God. I joined the choir so that other young deaf persons can get the courage to sing for the Lord,” she told Religion News Service.

The Rev. George Obonyo, a choir member and special minister for the deaf in the Nairobi Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, said the choir’s example has helped convince Kenyan churches to embrace deaf culture.

“I am grateful to churches in Kenya … for practicing inclusion,” he said. “I know this will do more in future regarding the inclusion.”

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