Replacing Hugs and Handshakes with Sign Language

It was the twelfth week of Zoom worship services at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. The pandemic had put a stop to all in-person church activities, and the congregation was getting restless. Zoom had its many benefits: We could safely “see” each other and share in real time. We could sing (while muted) with the musicians, make announcements, and listen to the sermon. We also introduced a new element of the service called “spotlighting.” As one of our musicians played, each participant’s screen would be showcased for a few seconds. The spotlighted people would wave and smile, and we would all enjoy seeing everyone in the congregation, however briefly.

But the personal interaction was missing—talking to each other one-on-one, shaking hands, hugging. We felt the lack.

On this Sunday, the day of Pentecost, the service was about the Holy Spirit. During children’s time, the story-giver talked about how the Holy Spirit is present but cannot be seen, heard, felt, or even tasted or smelled like other things that come to us through our senses. In fact, the Holy Spirit seemed somewhat similar to us meeting via Zoom, where we can see and hear each other only virtually, and touch is absent. 

It led to this question: How could we make our worship times more personal?

One thing we could use to feel reconnected is sign language. The story-giver taught the children, and the congregation, sign language for shaking hands and for hugging and even for a long hug (like a hug but move back and forth a bit).

She also made up a special First Mennonite Zoom sign that meant “I’m really, really glad to see you” (wiggle your fingers near the computer’s camera while grinning from ear to ear). These are signs that show how we feel about each other.

When the spotlighting time came around that Sunday, there was more than waves and smiles—there were individualized handshakes and hugs and the special “I’m really, really glad to see you” signs. And ever since, the congregation has used these signs to communicate with each other. 

When we gather again in person, while keeping a safe physical distance from each other, we hope these signs will continue in our vocabulary. In fact, we created an action item in our reopening policy:

  • No handshakes, hugs, or other physical contact while inside the building – use our new sign language.

The use of these virtual handshakes, hugs, and greetings during our online spotlighting has made adults and kids alike comfortable in using that sign language, so it will be easier and more natural to use when in-person worship happens. The result is a wonderful way for us to continue feeling connected without using physical contact.

By Anita Breckbill, member at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Nebraska

Anita Breckbill