ASL interpreter ‘gives back to God’

Sandra Hall signs during the 2019 Pentecost Sunday Mass at her parish, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk. Behind her are Deacon Calvin Bailey and the pastor of the basilica, Father Jim Curran. (Photo/Labat Photography)

For Sandra Hall, signing is a ministry


Sandra Hall curls her hand into a “C” and swings her arm from her shoulder to the opposite hip.

It may seem like just a swish to most, but it is the word “Christ” for the deaf.

Hall uses deliberate hand movements, facial expressions and body language when she interprets American Sign Language during Masses at her parish, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk.

Her friend Shelly Camm praised Hall’s signing as “accurate, beautiful, expressive and elegant.” Basilica pastor Father Jim Curran said that when Hall interprets a song, “it’s not just words.”

“She can communicate the rhythm and the melody and the feeling behind the music,” Father Curran said.

Hall, the second oldest of four children, grew up in Norfolk. She said her faith was nurtured as a child when the family prayed together, went to weekly confession and attended Mass on weekends and holy days. She attended Catholic schools from first through seventh grade. Her parents taught her to be honest and care for others.

She definitely has done that.

Caring and serving

As a child, she sang at funeral Masses with a few fellow students.

As a teen, she helped her mother study for nursing classes, accruing knowledge that came in handy when she later cared for her parents, grandmother, great grandmother and two older cousins.

Sometimes she ran errands for them, took them on outings and helped them with tasks around the house. Sometimes it was more personal, such as when she helped a loved one shower or dress.

Other times it was medical – changing dressings on wounds. Still other times, she visited them in their homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes so often that some thought she was on staff there.

As an adult, Hall joined the Gospel choir and Haitian and jail ministries. She helped at the parish soup kitchen and food pantry, and once a month delivered meals to seniors in the neighboring community. She served on parish council, led the rosary one Sunday a month, and has been a member of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas and the ecumenical Sowers of Justice and Peace.

“She is just beautiful inside and out,” Camm said. Hall helps her choreograph sign and dance, which she performs in praise at her church, Cornerstone Worship Center International in Hampton, on occasion.

Committed educator

At age 12, Hall was inspired to become a special education teacher when she volunteered weekly at St. Mary’s Infant Home, a residential facility in Norfolk where the religious order Daughters of Wisdom cared for children with severe disabilities. (It is now St. Mary’s Home, a nonprofit facility.)

She earned three degrees over the years: a bachelor’s from Norfolk State University (NSU) in special education with emphasis on intellectual disabilities, a bachelor’s in secondary education with emphasis on math from Old Dominion University (ODU) and a master’s in secondary education from Regent University. She is pursuing a bachelor’s in world languages and cultures with an emphasis on French at ODU and will graduate in December.

Among her jobs, Hall taught adult basic education, math and special education in Hampton Roads public schools and was an adjunct professor of math, college skills and middle high school at Tidewater Community College where she was a sign language interpreter for 25 years. She currently works for the tutor company Achievement Plus.

Advocate for the deaf

While studying at NSU, Hall would visit a friend who had a 3-year-old daughter thought to have an intellectual disability; but after getting to know them, Hall correctly deduced the child was deaf, not cognitively impaired. About seven years later, Hall saw the girl signing with her friends and thought “it was so beautiful” that she wanted to learn it.

Hall briefly studied sign language at NSU and ODU, but she said she primarily learned signing from deaf people. She learned interpreting at workshops, and a deaf parishioner taught her how to interpret for religious services. She immersed herself in the deaf community by going to deaf events, serving in four deaf organizations and advocating to end audism.

Hall began interpreting Masses for a deaf parishioner in 1984. Laughing, she said that she was “so, so, so bad” that first time that she probably interpreted only 20 percent of the liturgy. She remained steadfast and became a fluent interpreter for Mass and religious education, ever striving to let deaf people know they are an important part of the parish.

Father Curran said Hall’s interpreting has attracted deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

In addition to large gatherings such as area festivals, liturgies and parish activities, Hall has interpreted on an individual basis in multiple venues – some of which have been funerals, weddings, exercise classes, family gatherings, doctor visits and job interviews.

Taken over by the Spirit

Hall sees interpreting as a gift from God and is reluctant to take money for it, so she teaches and interprets sign language as a paid freelancer and on a volunteer basis.

“I look at it as a ministry. This is what I do. This is how I give back to God,” she said. “It goes deeper than just a job for me.”

She said when she is “signing, clapping, moving and talking,” Christ’s “Spirit takes over.”

Barbara Wright, basilica director of Christian formation, said watching Hall sign to the music “is picture of pure joy.”

Father Curran said “something beautiful” about Hall’s interpretations is that some of the worshippers in the pews have learned to sign “Gloria” and “Lord Have Mercy” along with her.

A car accident in 2005 “momentarily” curtailed some of her activities, she said, because she had such severe physical, sensory and cognitive problems that she needed intensive therapy, and she can no longer drive.

Despite the limitations, she continued to sign at weekend Masses, and in 2007 she began easing herself back into parish life and community service. It took several years to return to freelance tutoring, and she no longer does professional freelance interpreting.

For a catechetical breakout session for children and adults with cognitive disabilities at the diocese’s Eucharistic Congress, Hall did an instructional video on how to sign “We Shine Like Stars in the World” — the title of the diocese’s bicentennial hymn.

Gifts of faith, patience

Hall said God gave her the gifts of faith and patience – “the faith that everything would be alright and the patience to wait for it because things do work out in God’s time, not ours.”

“It’s not blind faith. We are troubled; we have all sorts of calamities that happen, but God is always with us, and he always sends somebody when we need somebody,” she said. “God is always there even in the darkest moments.”

Due to COVID restrictions, Hall has put almost all efforts on hold but plans to resume parish and community service once the threat of the coronavirus has subsided.

Stephanie King, fellow basilica parishioner and friend, said Hall “has a kindred heart,” and Hall’s daughter, Joy Joyner, said her mother “goes out of her way“ to help people in need such as homeless individuals, deaf persons and people with disabilities.

Sometimes her good deeds are random. For example, her good friend, Nicholas Edwards, said that once in the 1990s, they drove past some youth fighting in the street in Norfolk, one of whom was a student of hers. She jumped out of the car, ran into the thick of the fight, and the youth dispersed.

Friends say Hall lives her faith.

King said Hall “walks it and she talks it,” and Deacon Calvin Bailey, who has known Hall since childhood, said she “walks with Jesus” as she serves others and never seeks attention for doing so.

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