ASL interpreter brings Gospel to deaf community

Joan Macy is the ASL interpreter coordinator for the archdiocesan office of deaf ministry. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Ellie Melero
@eleanor_melero

OLATHE — Joan Macy lets her hands do the talking.

Not in a Chuck Norris/Jackie Chan kind of way. But she literally talks with her hands. Macy is an American Sign Language interpreter and has been one for a long time.

“When I was in high school, I started taking ASL classes for fun and just fell in love with it,” said Macy. “At that time, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I thought, ‘Well, I want to teach, but I really like sign language, so I guess I’ll teach deaf kids.’”

And she does teach deaf kids. Macy works at the Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe.

But that’s not all she does. She is also the ASL interpreter coordinator for the archdiocesan office of deaf ministry.

About 3.8% of Kansans have some form of hearing disability, according to the 2013 Cornell University Disability Status Report for Kansas, and many of those people live in the Kansas City area. The purpose of deaf ministry is to make sure deaf people have the same opportunities to encounter Jesus as hearing people do.

“Many deaf people have left the Catholic Church because they don’t have access,” Macy said. “They might show up to Mass, but they don’t know what’s going on, or they don’t have access to some of the faith formation opportunities that hearing people do. 

“If it’s not accessible to a deaf person, they miss out on learning their faith.”

Deaf ministry works hard to make sure deaf people don’t feel like they are being left out of the church and church life. 

It offers a monthly signed Mass at St. Paul in Olathe and weekly interpreted Masses at four parishes: Prince of Peace and St. Paul in Olathe, St. Joseph in Shawnee and Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka. It also offers Bible studies, retreats, workshops, sign language classes and more, and it tries to make sure there are ASL interpreters at any church event deaf people might want to attend.

That’s where Macy comes in.

There are 15 ASL interpreters who volunteer with deaf ministry, and it’s Macy’s job to make sure there are interpreters at each of the weekly interpreted Masses and at special church events or workshops.

“Because deaf ministry is such a global ministry — it’s so broad in what we have to do,” said Katie Locus, the consultant for deaf ministry, organizing interpreters is a full-time job in itself. 

“The deaf people in the community are starving for their faith,” she said. “A hearing parish can offer all kinds of opportunities for their hearing parishioners. How do the deaf people get access? Well, we have to provide interpreters.”

Every time Macy, or any interpreter, interprets the Mass, they provide more visibility for deaf ministry.

Macy said this visibility is important because part of the purpose of deaf ministry is to help bridge the gap between hearing people and deaf people. She encourages people who want to learn more about deaf ministry to attend one of their sign language classes or the monthly signed Mass.

She is also always open to answering questions.

“There’s always a time of educating people,” Macy said. “Whenever they see me interpret, they’ll always come up to me afterwards and want to talk a little bit about deaf ministry and how we can make sure that the deaf are invited and involved in the Catholic Church.”

Macy does more than just interpret events and coordinate the other interpreters.

Father Scott Wallisch, the chaplain for deaf ministry, said Macy often acts as an adviser for Locus and himself, and she also helps them run some of the day-to-day operations of deaf ministry. He also said she is an invaluable source for the other interpreters because of how much experience she has with deaf ministry.

“It’s a challenge interpreting anything because any time you go from one language to another it’s difficult,” Father Wallisch said. “There’s a whole vocabulary within Catholicism for sign language you would need to learn if you were going to interpret a Mass that you may not know just from knowing American Sign Language.

“As someone who signs the Mass myself, I will tell you that it’s very hard, and it’s given me an appreciation of just how good Joan is at interpreting.”

Macy has been the ASL interpreter coordinator since 2014, but she started volunteering with the deaf ministry program in the ’90s. In that time, she has been able to develop relationships with many members of the deaf community.

Locus said she loves watching Macy interact with the deaf community because she has authentic friendships with people. Members of that community know they can depend on Macy and trust her.

“One deaf person actually came up to me one time and said that they were trying to plan a funeral for their family and her first thought was: ‘How do I contact Joan? Because I know she’ll work this out for me and help support my family,’” Locus said. 

“The deaf community just knows automatically they can call Joan and depend on her,” she added.

David and Roberta Westerman are two members of the deaf community and belong to St. Paul Parish. They met Macy about 10 years ago when she interpreted a Mass they attended.

The Westermans said deaf ministry has had a big impact on them, and they really appreciate having interpreters at Masses and other events. They also said Macy in particular has had a big impact on the deaf community as a whole.

“The deaf wouldn’t know what to do without her,” Roberta said. “There’s really many people in the church that impact deaf ministry, but especially Joan. She has quite a concern, and she never wants anybody left out of getting the word of God.”

In addition to helping run the normal operations of the deaf ministry office, Macy is working with Locus to help organize the National Catholic Office for the Deaf’s Pastoral Week Conference, which will be held in Kansas City in January 2020. Representatives from throughout the U.S. and Canada will attend to discuss how to advance deaf ministry around the country, and Macy will serve 11 states as the Midwest representative.

Macy said she loves working with deaf people and she encourages more people to interact with the deaf community.

“I love the language, I love the culture and I love being able to share Christ with them,” Macy said. “Their witness and their faith are inspiring to me.

“It truly is one of the best jobs anyone could ever have.”

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