Sharing Jesus through community English classes
By Steve Hamstra
But 35 showed up, and the first semester of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program was underway, led by staff and students from nearby Ouachita Hills Academy and College.
It began with an appetite for outreach, strongly emphasized at Ouachita Hills. Students and staff looked for creative ways to witness in the community while meeting tangible needs.
Magda Rodriguez, an instructor at Ouachita Hills College, has led the ESL project from the beginning. “We discovered an ESL program was a great need,” she said, noting the many Hispanics in the area working on large chicken farms, lumber mills, and construction sites.
TEACHING MINISTRY: Alvin Cardona, a Ouachita Hills College freshman, is one of several volunteers helping adults in the community learn to speak and write English.
Then, a woman visiting the Ouachita Hills church plant in Arkadelphia recommended that Magda talk with the local government’s Adult Education Program coordinators. Naturally, there was some apprehension approaching the agency, because Ouachita Hills planned to make spiritual outreach a part of the ESL program.
“It is OK with us as long as you’re teaching them English,” was the reply.
The Adult Education Program coordinators agreed to fully sponsor the classes and provide all supplies needed, including computers, books, photocopies, assessment tools, paper, and pencils. Even meals were provided, because many of the ESL students would arrive directly from work.
Ouachita Hills had only to lead and staff the classes. And although the Adult Education Program offered full financial support, the director noted that other local ESL programs had not met with great success; in some cases, no students at all had shown up.
After two months of preparation, including refurbishing two rooms at Amity’s old elementary school, the Ouachita Hills team targeted January 15, 2008, as the first day of class. To generate interest, they promoted the ESL class in homes, in stores, and at work sites. But even with these efforts, Magda was not sure what to expect that first evening.
When 35 people came, the thoroughly surprised Ouachita Hills team scrambled to accommodate everyone. They called the local Adult Education Program office, which sent staff over to quickly photocopy more materials.
It didn’t stop there. The second night 54 people came, and one night the number reached 72. Attendance for the semester-long course averaged between 45 and 50 per night. To streamline the program and better meet the students’ needs, classes were divided into three groups, based on English proficiency. More Ouachita Hills students volunteered to teach as well.
A conscious effort was made to create practical, useful lessons for the ESL students. They were taught—in English—how to read maps, shop, visit the doctor, and interact in the workplace.
“[The students] were really excited,” said Alvin Cardona, a Ouachita Hills College freshman. “They would come to me with stories of how they used what they learned at work and other places.”
Mrs. Lopez, one of the ESL students in Alvin’s level-one class, was encouraged by the tangible progress she made in the class. “Now I can understand and talk to somebody [in English],” she said, noting that although she usually replies with only one or two words, she can now communicate independently. Nubia Ponce, another of Alvin’s students, said her ability to read and understand English has grown; she can now communicate better at work and while grocery shopping.
The Outreach Ingredient
True to plan, Ouachita Hills used the ESL classes as a means for spiritual outreach. Esther Morris, a sophomore at Ouachita Hills College, taught the level-three ESL class. At the beginning of each class she wrote a Bible verse on the board, then asked the class to share their views on it. She picked thought-provoking texts such as “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45, NIV). Esther was amazed by the insightful and inquisitive responses from the students. And the Bible verse discussions opened doors to deeper spiritual issues.
Prayer was a key element of outreach to the ESL students; every class included a time for prayer. Sabrina Mills, a Ouachita Hills College sophomore, remembered the trust that was forged as she took prayer requests at each of her level-two classes. As students grew more comfortable, they began to open up during prayer request time, describing the difficulties they were going through and the challenges they were facing, both at work and at home.
“I liked them to share what they’re thankful for,” Sabrina added.
Magda’s husband, Dwight, took the lead in initiating Bible studies with the ESL students. He always came to the classes and talked with students, and he invited anyone interested to take Bible studies. Four families agreed, and Magda and Dwight began studying the Bible with them in the evening after work.
“Every week they are ready, waiting for us,” Magda said.
She and Dwight earnestly pray over these Bible studies, because some of the material will challenge the traditional spiritual beliefs held by these families. And for some, if they choose to believe in Adventist doctrine, it will mean alienation from friends and relatives.
From the beginning, the Ouachita Hills team’s goal was not only to teach English but to demonstrate genuine Christlike care and friendship.
“It’s so important to have the friendship, the personal touch,” Magda said, then added, “I don’t want to get to the point where we’re just a good English program; we need to be meeting their personal needs.”
On May 5 the Ouachita Hills team and the ESL students celebrated the end of their first semester of classes. Staff from the Adult Education Program attended as well. This event provided the ESL students with an avenue to showcase their new English skills.
“The Lord opened the way for this [program],” Magda said. “We really want to give all the glory to God.”
Ouachita Hills students say they have been personally blessed by their experience teaching ESL classes.
“Just seeing how effective it was opened my eyes to how reaching out, heart to heart, is so effective,” Alvin said.
“They don’t come just for English; they come for friendship,” said Magda, who added that every night before class the teachers would pray for God’s blessing. “When I go to bed,” she said, “I feel I have done God’s work.”
The Ouachita Hills team is continuing its ESL program. Second semester began in August.
Ouachita Hills Academy (OHA) and Ouachita Hills College (OHC) are self-supporting Seventh-day Adventist institutions located in Amity, Arkansas, United States. OHA was founded in 1988, and OHC in 2003. OHA and OHC are member organizations of Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI).
Steve Hamstra is communication director for Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI).