Whether it’s singing or signing, Becca Cooper is all in at Unity Church of the Hills. Most people notice her at the 11:25 service on Sunday mornings, interpreting for the deaf. She and her fellow interpreters receive a love offering for their services, but it’s not just a job for Becca. She is a full member of the church, having taken the PATH class and sung with Inspiration, Jubilation, and the Fun Singers. She’s also sometimes noticed for the bright red Honda Forza motor scooter she occasionally rides to church.
Another of our “PKs” (preacher’s kids), she was born in Louisville, Kentucky, when her father was finishing his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By the time little Becca was two years old, the family had relocated to Louisiana and, as her father took different church pastorates, they would move six times within the state by the time she was 12. Her father retired from active preaching and became a special education teacher when Becca was 16. Her mother was also a teacher, retiring as an assistant dean at a community college in South Louisiana.
So it’s no surprise that Becca also became a teacher. For the last eight years, she has taught American Sign Language (ASL) at Round Rock High School to hearing students for completion of their foreign language requirement. Students can choose from Spanish, French, German, Chinese or ASL.
“My students are in these classes because they have deaf family members, deaf friends, or they just saw it on TV and became interested,” she said. “Some want to use sign language in nursing or medicine or law, but they want to be able to communicate in a different language that’s not Spanish or French. Some of them already speak something other than English at home—Spanish or Tagalog or Asian languages like Chinese or Korean—and they want to learn something different.”
Becca started learning sign language when she was eight years old because she has a cousin who’s deaf, and only one person in the family could communicate with him. She said, “He did pretty well at lip reading. That’s a skill that you’re born with that you can practice and improve, but it’s not a skill you can learn. He’s worked for the Department of Justice for 30 years now.”
About that same time, at her father’s church in Ruston, Louisiana, there were two deaf families who helped her learn more sign language.
Her mother, a pianist and singer, taught her how to read music when Becca was six. “She’s an alto,” Becca said. “I’m a soprano, so she would teach me the soprano part so she could sing the alto, and we’d sing together. I remember being three or four years old and standing on the chair next to my mom at choir rehearsal. The music kept me out of trouble, too. I was so very curious, and I was into everything, so music kept me occupied. I was also in the kids’ choir as soon as that became available, so I was in the adult choir and the kids’ choir.
Becca recently returned from a trip to Europe with four of her third-year students. They, along with various sponsors and chaperones, joined two other groups of ASL students from Arlington, Texas, and visited Paris and Barcelona. Becca said she especially enjoyed seeing historic sites in Paris. “Having grown up in Louisiana, I recognized some of the architecture. And we still have some of the Napoleonic Code in our laws in Louisiana, so some of that made sense to me.”
She said signing in French was only a little different. The alphabet in ASL is actually based on French sign language. When the need in the U.S. for teaching deaf children in sign language became apparent, the search began for someone who had the skills. They first searched unsuccessfully in England, and eventually met some French teachers who were attending a conference there. So the first teacher to come to the U.S. to teach deaf children was from France.
Becca says Deaf culture has always been a little more collectivistic than individualistic. “They’re often small communities, and they find they have to take care of each other,” she said. “Ninety percent of deaf kids have hearing families, and they’re the only deaf person. Sometimes the hearing families don’t know what to do. Or they choose not to learn sign language, so the Deaf kind of take care of their own. It’s more collectivist.”
Becca earned a bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders, which is speech therapy and audiology, from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She then entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, pursuing her interest in church music. After two and a half years of school, she took advantage of an opportunity through the International Missions Board, a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, to spend three months working with a missionary in Africa.
She worked with the deaf in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, a former French colony. Schools for the deaf there were established by American missionaries, so they sign in ASL. “But,” she said, “because the primary language is French, they finger-spell in French!”
“That trip was in 2003,” she said, “and that was what cemented my wanting to work with the deaf in ministry or teaching or interpreting. When I got back to seminary, I changed my emphasis from music to missions. And I also started taking ASL interpreting classes at the community college in Fort Worth.”
Her grandparents have been a huge positive influence on her. Her father’s parents died when she was 15 and 17, but her grandparents on her mother’s side played a big role in nurturing her love of music. “My grandmother was always singing,” she said. “My grandfather had vision problems, and when he got to where he couldn’t read the hymnal anymore, he’d hand it to me and say ‘Sing to me.’ I would, and he corrected me when I sang it wrong, and taught me.
“My grandmother also taught me how to love on and accept people. She always said, ‘Blood doesn’t define family. Love does.’ I also remember her saying, ‘We’ve got to cook some dinner,’ or ‘So-and-so is in the hospital, so we’ve got to bake a pie for them.’ From her I learned how to minister to people with food and music.”
After two more years of seminary on the missionary track, Becca came out as lesbian. “In 2000, everyone in seminary had to sign a document called the Baptist Faith and Message, basically pledging to follow the teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention. Part of it said that women are not allowed to be pastors. It was even pretty limiting for women to be missionaries. Primarily, they wanted a woman to be a pastor’s wife or a missionary’s wife. Of course, you could take classes, but mostly so you could support your husband. I said, ‘No, I want to be the preacher—this is what I’m studying for.’”
For refusing to sign the document, she was not allowed to return to seminary. She said, “One of the things that helped me make that decision was that three of my professors also refused to sign it. They were dismissed. Some of them went on to teach at private universities, but none of them went back to seminaries. There were a total of 12 professors who ultimately lost their jobs (some of them tenured), because they wouldn’t sign. Some of them had 20 or 30 years invested; they inspired me to follow what my conscience says, what my heart says.”
So after almost five years of seminary, Becca walked away for (ironically) refusing to sign. The Baptist Faith and Message continues in effect today, although Becca said she’s heard there was talk of updating it at this year’s convention, considering the pressure exerted on the convention to allow women pastors.
Coming out to her Baptist preacher father was not a happy occasion, either. The first time, at age 15 or 16, she said, “I was put in reparative therapy, and that was awful. Later, when I finally came out for good, my parents reacted pretty badly. But I chose to take care of myself. We didn’t talk for two or three years, but now it’s better. We see each other once or twice a year now.”
During her last two years in seminary, Becca was simultaneously taking ASL interpreting classes at the community college in Fort Worth. That’s when she discovered Unity. She had been interpreting at a Methodist church, and felt more comfortable there than in the Baptist church. But then on her Sundays off she began attending Unity.
“When I was getting ready to move to Austin,” she said, “I actually started looking for a church home before I even looked for a place to live.” She started interpreting at UCOH about three months after arriving in Austin and beginning to attend in 2013.
When asked what brought her to Austin, she was quick to answer, “A pretty girl!” That relationship became a marriage in 2013 and a former marriage three and a half years later. “But we are still good friends,” she hastened to add. “Part of the reason we got married was because we could. And then, as we went into that a little further, we realized that marriage is not a good way to prove a point.”
She’s all in at Round Rock High School, too. “I’ve been doing a lot of work, not only ASL- and deaf community-related, but I do a lot with the LGBT community,” she said. “I sponsor one of the clubs that support some of those students. We do a lot of social justice participation. Most recently, because of that affiliation, I’ve become part of our Equity and Inclusivity Committee, focusing on racial separation and racial inequities within our school system. Sometimes it’s especially hard for our brown and black LGBT kids to come out or to be open in their families, because of the cultural differences.
“I also do a lot of stuff at school with suicide prevention,” she said. “My younger sister, Jama, was 14 when she died by suicide. That was a turning point for me. All through college I went to different kinds of churches because I was trying to understand God. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t get you, God. I’m not with you right now.’ So I was really looking for answers.”
Becca and her colleague Shelby sometimes interpret as a pair when Revs. Brian and Kristen are conversing on the platform, each interpreter taking the role of one of the speakers. Becca especially excels at signing the music, a situation that combines her two passions.
She said, “That’s what keeps me tied to church—music and sign language.”