Reneé Shreeves was in junior high when she first encountered a girl who was deaf. Instead of shying away like most children would, Reneé embraced her, becoming fascinated with learning about deaf disabilities. She took her first sign language class that year, and has not stopped signing since.
Years later, when she was in her 30s, Reneé moved to Texas seeking a fresh start from a life of corporate America in California. Realizing she wanted to do more in life by helping others, she began taking more sign interpretation classes, which slowly re-inspired her to mold this hobby into a passion. Eventually, it spurred into a voluntary lifestyle. “I just have a love for it,” she said. “It’s my passion.” Once in Texas, Reneé earned her sign language certification after completing a two-year program at Eastfield College in Mesquite. Reneé felt she needed to develop the best skills she could because the Deaf she would work with deserved that.
Since 1992, Reneé’s training and experience has led her to working with the Deaf and teaching others because she understands the need for it and understands the culture. “Learning the culture was beneficial,” Reneé confided. “It’s not just about the learning [sign language], you have to understand their needs.” She believes people must open their eyes to see the Deaf culture.
Reneé continued her new journey of sign interpretation in Plano due to a need within a large Catholic church. She signed during church services and taught the choir sign language, so they could sign while they sang worship songs. Her specialty became signing music, a unique gift that requires feeling a connection to music and emotion. She said the hearing would come up to her and thank her for sharing her beautiful gift, which brought the worship melodies to life through vivid pictures of gestures
and emotions. “It is a beautiful language that conveys so much,” she proclaimed. Even though the Deaf community in the church was not large, it still impacted the church as a whole. Members began taking sign classes Reneé taught. She
also mentored college students who were involved in sign language classes at universities. For Reneé, sign
interpretation is more than just showing language, it is also a way to bring music and voice from an unheard melody to a vision of song and worship for the Deaf. “We’re conveying their language,” Reneé stated. She picks the right signs that will reveal the essence of the music. She knows it is not easy for some interpreters to sign music because it involves really feeling and showing the emotion behind it. “[You have to] put expression in signing,” Reneé explained. “Deaf people can’t hear music, so it’s important that they feel the music.”
Melissa Herndon, Reneé’s best friend, roommate and fellow sign interpreter, explained how passionate and powerful Reneé is when she signs during worship at church, calling her “the light” and describing her as a caring individual who gives 110 percent. “[She uses] her whole body when she signs. She knows it inside and out, and puts in hours of preparation,” she narrated. “Her whole being is immersed in signing and interpretation.”
Reneé, humbled and flattered, agreed, “Church and interpretation are what I have been called to do. It’s so important to get the meaning across.”
After helping the church in Plano, Reneé moved to Cedar Hill and began attending the Cedar Hill First United Methodist Church at some friends’ invitation. One day during church service, a woman saw Reneé discreetly signing to herself while singing worship. The woman said it was beautiful to watch and asked if she could do sign language for the entire congregation. During that time, a 12-year- old, hearing-impaired boy from Cedar Hill, who attended a hearing-impaired school in Austin, and his family started visiting the church. The parents wanted their son to learn about God, but needed help teaching him. Thus, Reneé began signing during the 11:00 a.m. service so the young boy, and others, could hear and see in their language the message of God. “It brings stories to life and people get tears in their eyes,” she said.
With only one known deaf ministry in the Southwest area at Trinity Church of Cedar Hill, Reneé’s next big goal is to seek out and identify the Deaf community in the Southwest area. She also desires to take sign interpretation to higher levels within the community. Coming from the north side of Texas, she hopes to increase deaf services and grow the ministry in the Southwest area. “I feel we’ve been given talents and gifts, which lead us down paths that can impact people’s lives and change people,” Reneé explained. Melissa supports Reneé’s drive to reach out and bring growth to the Southwest Deaf community. She believes sign interpretation allows them to connect with people on a different level without judgment. They do not see the Deaf as “less than.” Melissa feels this is especially important in sign interpretation ministry. “For someone to help [a person] in their walk with Christ is so beneficial to anyone at church,” she explained. “The Deaf population can skip a hurdle by seeing the openness there.”
The church has put ads in the paper and in deaf-assisted agencies and publications to raise awareness and hopefully attendance in the church. “It’s an isolated world, so we have to bring the world to them,” Reneé stated. She believes the Deaf want people to communicate with them, which will necessitate their type of communication.
Soon they will start teaching sign language classes again at their church. “Even the hearing describe the signing as beautiful and want to learn more so they, too, can communicate with others,” Reneé explained. “People say they get so much more out of it.”
Reaching the Deaf community will require the whole community. Reneé and Melissa both hope spreading the word about this need will encourage people to get involved and learn more about the Deaf community and signing. “Bring help and understanding to people, find a place where it is used and they find fulfillment,” Reneé explained.
Melissa said their church’s motto is “open doors, open hearts, open minds.” This motto is exactly what they strive to be and give to the Deaf. They want to connect with them on a spiritual level where they can feel accepted, loved and comfortable in a church community. “The Deaf are our neighbors and we should reach out. They need us like we need them,” Melissa explained. Reneé believes this mentality will help connect the community as a whole, creating a happier and safer area.
Written by Antoinette Nevils