Inside a small room in Muller Chapel, 15 Ithaca College students sway to the beat of “Amazing Grace.” One by one, each student raises their hands in the air, signing the verses in perfect sync with the music. With the line, “His grace will lead me home,” 30 hands move in a snake-like motion toward the heavens before exploding outward like a ray of sunlight. Throughout the whole performance, the only sound is the soulful music playing in the background as the group sings along with the intricate hand motions of American Sign Language.
The Hands of Praise sign language choir, which is run through the college’s Protestant Community, will perform this Saturday at the Relay for Life event for the first time.
Sophomore Chelsie Reed joined the choir in order to maintain her sign language skills.
“I joined because it uses American Sign Language in a different way,” she said. “I think it’s enhanced my relationship with God, being able to worship in a more physical way.”
Hands of Praise was formed seven years ago by two members of the college’s Protestant Community. Though it is run through this faith community, the sign language choir is open to all different religious groups. Students first join a beginner group, called Expressions of Grace, before graduating to Hands of Praise.
The group performs at churches throughout the area six to nine times each semester. Junior Maggie Burgess said churchgoers usually enjoy their performances and sometimes even want to learn sign language themselves.
“When people hear we’re a sign language choir, at first they’re often confused,” Burgess said. “They’re like, ‘How are you a choir if you sign?’ It opens up conversation, and then they want to learn more about it.”
Reed said she’s excited to perform for a new audience at Relay for Life.
“It’s a way to reach out to a larger group, especially our peers who we usually don’t get to sign for, like other students and Cornell students,” Reed said.
The choir’s performance will take place before the emotional Luminaria Ceremony that remembers those lost to cancer. Its finale song is “Just Stand Up,” a popular charity song whose proceeds benefit cancer research. Burgess said the song perfectly captures the moment.
“One of the lines we keep saying is ‘don’t give up,’” Burgess said. “That’s probably one of my favorite signs that we do too because it’s saying no matter what you’re going through, don’t give up. It addresses the issue of cancer, but I think you can relate it to anything.”
Junior Stephanie Farber, chair of entertainment for Colleges Against Cancer, said Relay for Life features many dance teams and singing groups, so Hands of Praise offers something different.
“It makes Relay more dynamic,” she said. “With using sign language, they appeal to more people, and we want as many people as possible at Relay.”
Hands of Praise rehearses once a week, which requires members to reinforce their signs outside of rehearsal.
“I practice a lot,” Burgess said. “It goes through your head when you’re in the shower, walking to class. We practice at dinner.”
As their rehearsal winds down, the group forms a circle and joins hands in prayer. Among other things, they give thanks for the opportunity to perform together. Junior Mary Curran, the choir’s director, said the group gets to know each other very well throughout the school year.
“I think the best part of it is that we’re all unified and we’re here for the same purpose,” she said.
Curran said performing allows each member to profess their faith in another way.
“The most rewarding part is being able to worship with the 15 members we have in a very unique way,” Curran said. “We don’t really have any other groups around or within other colleges that get to experience this.”
Burgess said the group enjoys performing and hopes to share their talents with others at Relay for Life.
“Coming here just puts you in the best mood,” she said. “I sound so cheesy, but I always say it – I leave here smiling.”
Hands of Praise will perform at 9:45 p.m. Saturday in Barton Hall at Cornell University. The choir will perform its spring concert at 7 p.m. April 18 at Bethel Grove Bible Church.