By Shannon Baker
LAUREL, Md.—Jessie Liang (not her real name) earned a Ph.D. in China but when her husband’s job moved her to the United States, she found herself having to begin again in her studies.
She was struggling to get by on a few basic English words when she discovered English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at First Baptist Church of Laurel, Md. There, she slowly began learning the new language, and in the process, found friends who took the time to minister to her needs.
“This class helps people who have just come to America,” she said. “It’s very nice, because you see a lot of people who can help you. You will feel kind of warm inside.”
She contrasted the warmth to the nervous feelings one gets when they are alone and left out of the conversations around them.
“You will get peace, and you won’t feel so worried,” she said.
Laura Freireich, an acupuncturist from Mexico, agreed.
“It’s not just learning English. [The classes] are very good to learn the customs and the ways people live in this country,” she said, adding, “It’s beautiful teachers because they do it with all their heart.”
Freireich is especially fond of her instructor, Norma Barkdull, who has been involved in English literacy ministry since 1985. Barkdull says ESL is her “heart ministry.”
Today, First Baptist of Laurel, in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network/BCMD, hosts two 16-hour ESL workshops designed by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board (NAMB) specifically for volunteers teaching ESL in a church or ministry setting.
The workshop is offered twice a year in January and August. This training is conducted in two-part sessions. Both parts are required in order for participants to complete their ESL training.
At the church, regular ESL classes are held at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays, and 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. There are five levels of learning. Students are evaluated to decide which level is right for them.
There are over 60 countries represented in the church’s membership, including people from places as diverse as Nigeria, Laos, Japan, Cuba and Honduras. Altogether, there are 13 different Spanish-speaking countries represented in the ministry.
Many of First Baptist’s ESL leaders are teachers, but many are retired individuals. Other instructors are people who were born in the United States to immigrant parents.
In addition to the free ESL classes, which focus on teaching students how to hear, speak, read and write in English, First Baptist, Laurel, hosts free citizenship classes. They have celebrated several occasions when students became official U.S. citizens.
“We make a special effort to build relationships so we can be able to share Jesus at any time and anywhere,” Barkdull said.
Each ESL class starts off with a Bible verse and prayer, followed by an hour of instruction. The class closes with a short devotional—often led by one of the church’s pastors—and prayer.
“I think this is a little bit of what heaven will be,” Barkdull shared.
In addition, Barkdull and others host international Sunday school classes, where students are given Bibles in their own languages. They read passages in their own native tongue and then read them in English, breaking down the scripture word by word to learn their meaning.
“But we all share the Lord together. That is the main thing,” Barkdull said. “These are people you would never get to know otherwise, and they are beautiful.”