WILKINSON — The song “Amazing Grace” flooded the sanctuary, and knowing every word, Nikki Harless began to form signs for the lyrics with her hands.
In the weeks that followed, Harless, who’d been a visitor that week, returned to the church. The pastor struck up a conversation, noting he enjoyed watching her sign and wondered why the hearing woman did it. Out of that conversation was born the sign language team at Warrington Nazarene Church.
For nearly four decades, that’s been a pattern for Nikki Harless: go to a church and start a sign language group. When she moves to another congregation, she starts another group. But the main thread running through that pattern has been a need she’s noticed.
Years ago, Harless was new in her Christian faith and started going to a church. A little girl in the congregation could not hear, but her mother knew sign language and interpreted the services so she could follow along.
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Harless had long thought it would be interesting to learn sign language, and the girl’s mother began a weekly class for those interested. Class members began by signing for a single song, but before long Harless had learned enough to interpret entire services.
Years later, she was working at a craft store in Indianapolis when a mother came in to buy a latch-hook kit for her 12-year-old son, who was deaf. The mother worried about explaining the instructions to her son, but Harless took a few minutes to sign with him. The boy’s mother, who had not learned sign language herself, was amazed.
Harless saw the scenario play out again and again, in different venues with different people: Parents who did not know their son or daughter could not hear until the child was 3 or 4. What followed was a struggle to learn sign language and teach it to the child — or the resignation to not being able to communicate, letting the child attend boarding school and sign with classmates. Even when parents did learn, such as the mother who taught Harless, who else could the children converse with?
Along the way, she found a personal ministry.
“How would a deaf kid ever know who Jesus was? Somebody’s got to be out there to tell them,” she said. “Hearing people are not the only people who need to know about Jesus. …That’s what the Lord said it was my job to do.”
That was going to be her ministry, she thought, to evangelize to the deaf community — and it wouldn’t be just her leading the way but also everyone she could get to come to a class and learn the language.
Holly Trees-Miller joined the Warrington sign language group when it began in 2004. She remembers when Harless began asking around to see who was interested.
At the time, Trees-Miller knew of a man in Shirley who was deaf, and she thought it would be nice to learn how to communicate with him — like learning a new language.
Since then, she and the rest of the team have learned countless songs, from Christmas carols to Easter hymns. The Michael W. Smith chorus, “Above All,” stands out as a favorite of hers (“Like a rose trampled on the ground / You took the fall / And thought of me / Above all”).
“That one is very stirring to sign and to sing,” Trees-Miller said.The group has signed songs for the church and also in community services organized by the Community Ministerial Alliance, which brings area churches together for combined services on occasions such as Good Friday.”This performance is very moving — it is so gracefully presented,” wrote the Rev. Jim Jackson, pastor of Shirley Friends Church, in an email to the Daily Reporter. “I think everyone looks forward to the next Ministerial Alliance worship services in hope that we get to enjoy another sign language presentation set to music. It is kind of like a graceful musical.”
Jackson also said that several years ago, when a deaf man was part of the Shirley Friends congregation, Harless invited church members to the class at Warrington, and she helped several of the man’s fellow church members better communicate with him.
That means so much more than post-service compliments to Harless. The team might present graceful motions, but she’s more interested in sharing the grace of God, she said.
Each week, she interprets services for a hearing congregation, knowing her class members will learn signs faster and the church will be that much more ready to welcome anyone who is deaf. “The reason that we do this is not so much for entertainment purposes,” she said. “We want to be ready to evangelize the deaf community.”