Press ReleaseGloria Goss-Harris
Article as posted in the Daily Southtown.
After 20 years of spiritual storytelling through signing, ‘a picture of grace’ retires from South Holland Master Chorale
Gloria Goss-Harris is a religious believer.
But she thinks being one should be an informed decision — for everyone, no matter their abilities.
“I believe everyone should have a choice to believe or not believe, but if you don’t have access to it in a way that you can make a cognitive decision about it and you only do what other people tell you to without having your own personal input, that’s wrong,” she said. “Everyone should be able to have information given to them in a medium that they understand.”
That is why for nearly 20 years, Goss-Harris has volunteered as a sign interpreter for the South Holland Master Chorale, in addition to doing similar work for several churches and groups in the area. Goss-Harris wanted to make religious music accessible to audience members who were deaf or partially deaf.
“It was always exciting — just a lot of fun,” Goss-Harris said. “I learned a lot. I got as much as I gave.”
Goss-Harris will not be interpreting at 4 p.m. May 14, when the Chorale performs at St. Maria Goretti Church in Dyer, Indiana, or 4 p.m. May 21, at St. John the Evangelist Church in St. John, Indiana. She is retiring from the role, as the work has become too strenuous for her at 75 years old. Sign interpreting requires full-body exertion to properly express the emotions of music, she explained.
“It takes a toll on the entire body,” she said. “It’s very demanding. When I was younger, in my 30s and 40s and 50s, if the concert was an hour-and-a-half, I would stand up and be just like the conductor, and it did not bother me. I even wore high heels.”
Goss-Harris started doing cryotherapy at 70, which helped a little, but by 75 she has been sitting down for her performances.
“My upper body … it’s just tired now,” she said.
Goss-Harris said it will be hard for her to step away from the chorale, but she hopes to continue listening to their music whenever she can make it to a concert.
“I will sorely, sorely miss each and every member of the chorale group,” she said. “This has been the best experience of my entire life. I’m so thankful to God that I was steered to them and that I could add something.”
The high school Goss-Harris attended had a “blind skills room” that piqued her interest in helping people with vision loss. But the school also had a system that planned where they thought students should be after graduation, and Goss-Harris followed it to an early career as an insurance underwriter. That did not last long.
“They thought I was a financial, mathematical genius, but nobody ever asked me if I liked it, which I didn’t,” she said.
So she went to Northern Illinois University to get a bachelor’s degree and then the University of Illinois at Chicago for a master’s degree to work with people who are deaf and blind. She eventually got into signing for people who only have hearing loss, switching from tactile to visual methods of communication.
Her sign interpretations of religious music started at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. She has also worked with Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland for more than two decades. The Rev. Pamela Stallings there was a member of the Chorale and introduced Goss-Harris to former longtime music director Albert Jackson. Goss-Harris said she loved Jackson’s music selections.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I got to interpret God’s music in different languages,” Goss-Harris said. “It was just a joy for me, because I can’t sing. I always thought that was funny. God would put me where people had beautiful voices. My own humming gets on my nerves.”
Jackson, who was music director for 23 years, said it is hard to recall a time without Goss-Harris.
“It was so natural a transition into this, I can’t remember when she started,” Jackson said. “It seems like she’s always been there. … She’s a wonderful personality. She has always been a natural part of the chorale.”
Jackson said chorus music is largely sacred, and he saw Goss-Harris as almost a pastoral figure, someone who interpreted not just the literal text but the spirituality of it.
“Her interpretations are so beautiful,” Jackson said. “She is, physically speaking, a picture of grace. It’s just amazing to see her work.”
Among the challenges Goss-Harris faced interpreting the chorale’s music is that it was often in a language other than English, such as Latin or German. That meant Goss-Harris had to learn the English translations first to understand the songs.
“If you really want the deaf person to have an idea of what the composer was trying to tell you, they need to know what they meant, and I do, too,” she said. “You can’t interpret what you don’t know.”
But then Goss-Harris would have to figure out how to convey that to the audience, focusing on the story rather than verbatim signing. That is particularly important when it comes to repeated phrases, which are boring to those who are deaf, Goss-Harris explained.
“You can tell immediately if deaf people are bored,” she said. “They’ll start signing to you: Do you know another song? It made me have to be more creative in expressing the song’s meaning without saying the refrain over and over again.”
Most interpreters don’t take the same time to learn what songs are about and make interesting changes, she said, but it is necessary for this type of music.
“When it comes to spiritual music, you have to buy into it,” she said. “You have to love what you do.”
That dedication stood out to Chorale President Melodee Leimnetzer, who remembers Goss-Harris studying the music at every rehearsal. Goss-Harris, like everyone with the nonprofit Chorale, put in her work as a volunteer.
“I understand that many sign interpreters charge for their services, but in all the years Gloria has been with the chorale, she has volunteered her services, for which we are most grateful,” Leimnetzer said. “Her work with us has certainly enriched our performances for our singers as well as our audience members — a service we would not have been able to pay for.”
Goss-Harris works in an elementary school but only plans to remain in the United States full-time through the end of the 2023-2024 school year. After that, the South Shore resident intends to live at least part-time in Alicante, Spain, where the climate and food are more conducive to her good health. But that doesn’t mean Goss-Harris is going to take it too easy. She has already been in touch with some schools there about possibly volunteering with children.
“I have to do something,” Goss-Harris said.
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.
Gloria Goss-Harris, of Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, is retiring after nearly two decades as a volunteer sign language interpreter for the South Holland Master Chorale. (Michael Cierski / HANDOUT)