A pang of conscience bothered Joleen Hunkins one day as she was about to interpret Mass in sign language.
“I was worried about giving my own version of the Gospel,” she recalled. “When I told our pastor at the time, he asked me, ‘Do you pray before you sign at Mass?’ I said yes, always. He told me, ‘Then don’t worry. God works through you just as he works through me.'”
Hunkins and her husband, Rich, are members of SS. Edward and Isadore Parish in Flintville. She was a stay-at-home mom for her four children. Now that they are adults, she’s a certified interpreter of American Sign Language working at Southwest High School in Green Bay.
Two of her six sisters also are professional interpreters for the deaf. Their family learned to sign to communicate with one of the girls, JoRita, who has been deaf since birth.
Much as the case with learning a second language, it helps to learn American Sign Language when one is young, Hunkins said, and it helps to be a visual learner as well.
“It’s a beautiful language” because it is so expressive, she told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.
“Deaf people like it because it’s like their secret they get to share,” she said with a grin.
Hunkins has been doing plenty of sharing herself.
She volunteers with the Hand in Hand organization to teach elementary age students sign language and to support them and their families.
Along with regularly interpreting at Sunday Mass for the deaf community at St. John the Evangelist Parish, she volunteered this year to be the catechist working with two young deaf women in the Green Bay parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.
She’s no stranger to sharing her faith. As a teenager, she taught young children in her parish faith formation program.
Here in Edmonton, St. Mark’s Catholic Community of the Deaf ministers to the local community. The chaplain is Father Matthew-Anthony Hysell.
Back in Green Bay, Hunkins volunteered to teach freshman faith formation, then taught the confirmation class when her son, her oldest, went through preparation for the sacrament.
“I just keep getting drawn in,” Hunkins explained. “And I know it’s God doing it.”
The rocker on her front porch at her home in Pulaski is her favorite place to pray during the warmer months; otherwise she’s on the couch in the quiet of the mornings.
She has a special relationship with St. Therese of Lisieux, “the Little Flower,” and is remembered by her former students for teaching them St. Therese’s “Novena Rose Prayer,” which she knows by heart.
Teaching in the RCIA is new to her, though, and she is grateful for all the assistance she’s received.
With the help of Ann Vorpahl and Connie DeMeuse from the staff of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Hunkins cobbled together learning materials and visuals that meet the learning and language-skill levels of 15-year-old Alexandrind Snyder from Haiti and 26-year-old Chai Yang, a Hmong-American, as they prepare to be baptized at the Easter Vigil at St. John.
“Father Christopher Clusman, a deaf priest from Milwaukee, helped me guide the girls through reconciliation,” Hunkins said, “and we walked all over the sanctuary before Mass one day to help them understand what goes on around the altar.”
The deaf community at St. John the Evangelist has been supportive as well.
“It’s our responsibility to teach these girls, not just mine,” Hunkins said. “We’re not just giving them something, we are experiencing it with them.”
She encourages people to approach and talk with the deaf and hard-of-hearing, the preferred terms. “Hearing impaired” implies a disability, she said.
“The deaf are just like any of us, they just can’t hear,” Hunkins said. “They have the same feelings, the same nervousness meeting new people. Most are very patient; they are so excited you’re even trying to converse with them.”
As she has walked the RCIA journey with Snyder and Yang, Hunkins feels “both guilty and humbled,” she said.
“I get so much from it. I don’t think I do anything special. The girls I’m teaching, their childlike faith is such an example,” she said. “They know God loves us — it’s total faith. We can all learn from that.”