Attending a liberal arts college means that there is a big focus on students being well-rounded in all areas of study. One area of study that is lacking at Hope College is in the realm of American Sign Language, or ASL. Despite requiring students to take two semesters of a foreign language, sign language is not offered or considered a language that students can take for credit. Even though about half a million Americans use this form of communication, Hope College does not provide students with the opportunity to learn how to interact with the deaf community. However, senior Rachael Peterson has been hard at work with the Silent Praise groups to make sure there is a sign language presence on campus, making Hope more welcoming to the deaf and hard of hearing community than it would be otherwise. Earlier this week, Rachel talked with the Anchor about her experiences at Hope with Silent Praise.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m a senior doing composite major of sociology and psychology. Because Hope doesn’t have a sign language major or classes, I primarily take classes that I can transfer to use with the deaf culture. I also have a music minor.
What is Silent Praise and how did it start?
Silent Praise is a student organization that comes together twice a week and learns sign language. It started in the late 1990s, and the founder started it because he wanted to show different ways of praising God. I became president of this organization because during orientation weekend it seemed like every conversation I was a part of involved someone talking about sign language. It made me wonder why Hope doesn’t have any classes, majors, or minors relating to sign language. I was told about Silent Praise by a friend, but when I went for the first time, there was nobody at the meeting. I did some digging and ended up talking to Bruce Benedict. I found out from him that the senior who was running Silent Praise had graduated and nobody had picked it up, so I decided that I would.
What is its function on campus?
When I first started, the purpose was to show people that you can worship in ways other than just standing and singing. This year I changed it up a little bit. We now meet twice a week, with one meeting to sign praise song and the other for learning basic sign language to get more comfortable with signing in general. I want people to learn more about deaf and hard of hearing culture and to have a space where people can ask questions if they have them. I want people to be able to engage with each other, and with others who are not like them.
What is a typical meeting like?
Sundays are geared towards learning sign for chapel songs. Usually, I pick a song that’s a reasonable tempo with a middle ground amount of words and teach myself the signs. Then I will teach it to the students who attend. Sometimes we do it section by section with and without music depending on the students’ comfort level. On Wednesdays I teach basic sign language to students. We work on things like the alphabet, numbers, basic conversational phrases, and we’ll learn specific stuff if people have specific questions.
How do you guys partner with other groups on campus?
We don’t have much partnership with other groups, but I try to connect with the chapel band and perform at the Gathering and morning chapels at least once or twice a semester. If we can we try to do the Doxology at the end of the Gathering, which is really easy for people to pick up because they do it every week if they go to the Gathering.
How has Silent Praise impacted your life?
It is a place where I can fully be myself and share my experiences that I’ve had within the hearing world. I can help those hearing people that come to be more aware of what they’re hearing, seeing, and talking about in regards to the deaf and hard of hearing community. Also, I can spread awareness and foster an environment where people aren’t afraid to talk to people who are different from them, especially those with disabilities that might not be visible.
What would you like the future of Silent Praise to look like?
I hope that it will help people get more engaged with other people who are not like them. I also hope that people will become more engaged with faith and the Lord. I want to encourage people to reach out to sign language classes outside of Hope and get involved in learning another language.
How can other students get involved?
They can email firstname.lastname@example.org or me directly at email@example.com. Additionally, they can check out our instagram page @hope_silent_praise or get in contact with us through Campus Ministries.
If there was one thing you could tell Hope students what would you say?
Branch out, follow your faith, and listen to what your heart says.
If Hope College is truly committed to diversity, it is important that they examine their relationship with the deaf community and figure out a way to be more inclusive to their language and lifestyle. If students were able to learn sign language on campus through the college, this would open students to be able to interact with deaf and hard of hearing peers in a way that is welcoming and affirming to those in that community. It is remarkable, though, that Rachael has been able to carry this torch and make a difference in the lives of those involved with Silent Praise. The next time you go to the Gathering, make sure to look out for Rachel and her friends when the Doxology plays. Take the time to learn the signs and participate. You never know who might feel more welcome because of it.