Parkway Stories

“Not Just Teachers”: How ESL Volunteers Equip and Serve Local Immigrants

The atmosphere inside Conexión is relaxed on Tuesday evenings. Families and individuals converse over a small meal, trading snippets of their lives back and forth like they’re sharing a collected treasure. They laugh together, give advice, divulge plans, and commiserate over the highs and lows of life.

When a woman stumbles over a word, she pauses and glances away as if embarrassed.

“Don’t worry. It’s a safe space, remember?”

Reassured, she tries the word again, questioning. When she succeeds, she smiles and looks as though she’s filing away that bit of knowledge for later. Then the conversation continues - more confident and sure - and the next stumble isn’t so hard.

This is typically how the ESL classes begin every week: warm greetings, an affirmation, and a small meal before the group splits off into their respective classes. There are three classes, each being taught by two instructors. The classes range from the most basic to the more challenging. The Level 1 class might be learning weather related words, while the Level 3 class is busy reviewing the Bill of Rights and Constitution.

“We’re not just teaching them English,” says Andrew Pegram, one of the teachers of the Level 3 class. “We’re also teaching them about the culture and society in the United States.”

But that’s not the only teaching happening on Tuesday nights at Conexión. While the primary goal of the class is to teach English, the heart-goal is to share the gospel.

The Nations are Here

Since 1960, the United States has been the top destination for international migrants. As of 2017, one-fifth of the total world’s migrants live in the U.S. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the size of the immigrant population in the U.S. in 2016 was 43.7 million people, which accounts for 13.5% of the total US population. Of these, 49% were considered to have Limited English Proficiency.

But what does that mean here on a local level? According to the Census Bureau, foreign born persons make up 7.9% of Chesterfield County’s population, and that number continues to grow. More importantly, 4.3% of Chesterfield’s population report not being able to speak English very well.

Using estimated population totals, this means that a language barrier exists for about 14,775 people in Chesterfield County alone. And the ESL team wants to make that number smaller.

The Love of a Neighbor

Alongside the practical lessons on holding conversations, understanding the weather forecast, and civics there’s an undercurrent of God’s love. The teachers pray over their students, they know their names and their children’s names, and the excitement over seeing each other again each week is evident. Every week, someone leads a devotional lesson in English. It’s simple, but the gospel truth is there.

“It’s difficult to know if the message is getting across,” admits Emily Hall, who co-teaches the Level 2 class. “But we pray that it does.”

Even if the message doesn’t reach in English, Conexión itself provides an opportunity to present the gospel. After the first meeting of the ESL class, Fernando Mangieri - the former pastor at Conexión - sent out text messages to all attendees to invite them to Sunday service. From this communication, two new families were in attendance at the next Sunday meeting.

Conexión and the ESL Team both hope and pray these introductions and invitations lead more people to Jesus Christ. They hope, also, that the students may share the gospel with family and friends both locally and abroad thereby spreading the gospel message further.

The students are grateful, and they make sure to show it. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Claudia - a student in the Level 3 class - spoke for the group of students to formally thank the teachers for all of their hard work.

In the Level 2 class, a student named Cecilia thanked Emily and Mary Kay Ayers for the lesson and for being her teachers.

“No, not just teachers,” Mary Kay gently corrected. “We’re your friends.”

The Work Continues

Currently, the ministry supports approximately 5-7 students on average per week. This number varies from week to week, and the team has taken steps to try and promote good attendance, but they continue to hope for more students - which means they’ll need more workers.

“You don’t have to know Spanish to teach ESL, so that shouldn’t keep anyone from helping,” says Rhonda Hawks, an ESL teacher for Chesterfield County Public Schools and the ESL Ministry team leader. “Our motto is ‘Know English? Love Jesus? Teach ESL!’ That’s all that really matters.”

“We need to remember that ESL is not just for Spanish speakers either,” says Andrew. “While we’re teaching Spanish speakers at Conexión, the method of teaching is the same for people who speak other languages as well.”

Considering that countries like India and China are surpassing Mexico and Latin America in the number of immigrants coming to the United States, this is something worth exploring. A larger ESL Ministry could potentially branch out and reach a greater number of people from various nationalities - and bring the gospel to the nations that have come to live in our own backyard.

But for now, the team is content with growing the ESL Ministry at Conexión. They are thankful for the current support and donations they’ve received, and they ask for continued prayers for them and their students. Already, they are seeing the fruits of their labor in the friendly faces that greet them on Tuesday evenings and in the bond they’ve created through language.

Written by Sara Pegram,
A member of Parkway Baptist Church