English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry is an effective way for churches to reach those in the local international community who want to learn or improve their language skills. Through regular instructional classes and the relationships that develop there, volunteers have the opportunity to share the Gospel with individuals from all across the world.
“When a church offers ESL classes, they are setting themselves up to reach the nations. While some places on earth are difficult and dangerous for Christian workers today, we have an open door to share the Gospel and make disciples of the unreached peoples living right here,” said Tim Rice, director of South Carolina Baptist Convention’s (SCBC) missions mobilization group.
Since 2007, Calvary Church in Florence has taught English to individuals from 15 nationalities and has included a 10-minute devotional in each class. Students can attend ESL classes there on Thursday mornings and Sunday nights, a Sunday school class is offered on Sunday mornings, along with an ESL class just for children.
Coordinator Sue Johnson said the ministry looks for ways to meet the needs of students, including helping some gain citizenship. However, the real purpose in the ministry is to build relationships and share the Gospel.
“I am so excited when a student shows interest in Christ and begins to ask questions. It is the most heart-warming experience to know that God has given me this opportunity,” said Johnson, who also served for 20 years as a SCBC literacy missions consultant.
Dr. Helen Xie was a heart physician in China for many years, while her husband, Max Gong, lived in New Jersey for a few years working in international trade. Their retirement brought them both to Florence three years ago to be closer to family. Johnson estimates Helen arrived knowing less than 100 English words, but her determination to speak the language drove the couple to attend every ESL class Calvary Church offered and stay for worship services.
Johnson said Helen was filled with language questions, including words she’d jotted down from television commercials. As Helen and Max spent more time in church, they began having questions about what they were learning about God.
“One morning in Sunday school, Max and Helen prayed to receive Jesus as their Savior,” Johnson said, making them the fourth and fifth ESL students in the last three years to make professions of faith. The couple was baptized last August.
Now, Helen is quick to volunteer in church and is a part of a crochet ministry. She studies English every day, and she is hungry to learn more about the Bible. When Helen asked questions to better understand the Ten Commandments, one of the ESL teachers modified a Sunday school lesson to help.
Another Chinese couple, Chen Zhang and Xiaoying Xiez, also began attending Calvary Church’s ESL classes in October 2013, because they saw a sign offering free English classes. At the time, the couple felt lonely as they grieved a painful miscarriage and told Johnson they had ‘no religion, but we want to learn about Christianity.’
Johnson said the couple relentlessly asked questions about Christianity to learn as much as they could about God. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Johnson invited the couple to her home, and studied Scripture with them at her kitchen table. They soon prayed to receive Christ and were baptized that Dec. 23.
A job change briefly took Chen and Xiaoying to another state where they requested Johnson’s help in finding an English speaking church to join. Last year the couple returned to Florence and jumped back into ministry at Calvary Church. Johnson reports Chen and Xiaoying named their daughter Joy because of ‘the joy that God put in their lives,’ and that they are expecting another child.
“The ministry at Calvary is successful because volunteers take their calling seriously. They are not only called to teach English to international students but to build relationships with them and to eventually share the Gospel,” said Dot Whitmire, SCBC literacy missions consultant.
“As South Carolina welcomes more immigrants and international workers, the need for literacy volunteers will continue growing. I am thankful for the churches offering ESL and literacy classes,” he said.