Posted on : Monday August 1, 2011

By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent

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 back into early education. 

She was struggling to get by on a few basic English words when she discovered English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at First Church, 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.

Under the leadership of former pastor, Frank Perry, Barkdull and other church members reached out to “ManOne Chit,” whose Cambodian husband was a custodian of the church. They provided childcare and taught her English. Eventually, ManOne secured a job after learning how to count from one to 100.

Soon, Hispanics and Koreans, who also held church services in the building, sought English training as well. Barkdull obtained certification and continued to teach the international students but as the demand for teachers grew, she began training the trainers.

Today, First, Laurel, in partnership with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, 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 a two-part session. Part one begins on Aug. 13 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Part two is scheduled on Aug. 20 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Both parts are required in order for participant to complete their ESL training. The cost is $25 per person (includes lunch and materials).

All the workshop leaders are experienced ESL teachers in their own local churches who have received extensive additional training to certify them as NAMB ESL workshop leaders.

Many of First Laurel’s workshop leaders are teachers, but many are retired individuals. Other instructors are people who were born in the United States to immigrant parents.

“One workshop leader said his mother never learned how to properly say his wife’s name,” Barkdull said, noting that many internationals want to help their families and loved ones to adapt well to U.S. culture.

In addition to the free ESL classes, which focus on teaching students how to hear, speak, read and write in English, First, Laurel, hosts free citizenship classes. They have celebrated several occasions when students became official U.S. citizens.

But what Barkdull likes most is the opportunity to share her faith.

She and others host an international Sunday school class, where students are given Bibles in their own languages. They read passages in their own languages and then read them in English, breaking down the scripture word by word to learn their meaning.

“I think this is a little bit of what heaven will be,” Barkdull shared. “If you have ESL, it will grow your church.”

Today, there are 50 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.

“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.”

Darline Ballou, Maryland’s WMU president, teaches ESL at the Church of Severn Run in Severn, Md.
She’s taught the international students about the picture presented in Revelation 7:9, which describes “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before [God’s] throne” (NIV).

But she’s learned valuable lessons, too.

“Teaching ESL teaches you to think like an international,” she said, noting how difficult it must be to hear people talking fast, using idioms and otherwise being difficult to understand. “It has really opened my eyes to what they must be thinking.”

ESL ministry affects the way families think about internationals, too, shared Iris White, managing editor of BaptistLIFE.

Her younger daughter, Laura, often witnessed her mother sharing holiday meals and quilt classes with international women who were learning English. Her involvement with internationals in Maryland prepared her for living overseas and gave her a special love for people of other cultures. While serving in Europe and Asia with her military husband, she saw the people not as Belgians or Koreans, but as people created by God. She developed relationships with them and learned enough of their languages to be able to communicate. God answered her prayer to be able to love them with His love.

“God can use our involvement with ESL and internationals in unexpected and wonderful ways,” White said.


To register for the ESL 16-Hour Workshop, which is designed to equip participants to begin and conduct a literacy mission ministry, to provide training for teaching an ESL class and to give guidelines for witnessing to immigrants and internationals, go to Participants wishing to receive NAMB certification must complete all classroom sessions.

For more information, contact Lindsey Shaffer at (443) 745-1534 or email at [email protected]