Church’s ESL ministry reaches Midlands refugees

The English-as-a-second-language program at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia offers basic assistance to a new segment of the Midlands’ population: refugees. The church organized the ministry last year after about a dozen volunteers were trained by South Carolina Baptist Convention consultant Dot Whitmire.

“We have thousands, maybe millions, of people coming into this country from other countries,” said Whitmire. “Many have never heard the gospel, or the name of Jesus. God commands us to go, but sometimes ‘going’ may be just around the block or neighborhood to reach these people.”

Pastor Terry Smoak agrees, adding that his church doesn’t have to go far to engage people from around the world. The Lord is bringing the nations to them through Kilbourne Park’s ESL program, which is called “Bridges.”

“Bridges has provided opportunities for interested church members to be actively involved in seeking to share Jesus’ love with others,” Smoak said.

In the early stages of planning for the ministry, Kilbourne Park members prayed for God to lead, held informal meetings with the congregation, and pursued training with Whitmire. Potential students quickly emerged from a nearby university, the working community, and refugees brought to the midlands by a local religious family services organization.

In the last 14 months, the church’s Bridges program has reached people from Bhutan, China, Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Mexico, Syria, Taiwan, Morocco, Zambia, Rwanda, Colombia, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Ministry director George Smith believes God has brought many of these students to the United States so that they can hear the gospel.

George Smith, director of Kilbourne Park Baptist Church’s ESL program, “Bridges,” enjoys a moment with some international friends.

“Many church members dream about short-term mission trips overseas, but with so many foreigners here, any Christian can be active in spreading the gospel abroad,” said Smith. “There is no passport or plane ticket necessary. We already have all that we need: our love of Jesus, His Word, His Holy Spirit, and our ability to speak English.”

While class sizes are unpredictable, Smith said God consistently provides for the ministry by connecting new students with the program and supplying language teachers. “Most of our teachers are Columbia International University students. This gives our ministry added purpose, as we are helping to prepare future missionaries with needed experience,” he said.

The Bridges program offers five Sunday afternoon classes, from beginner to advanced, followed by a meal and social time with students. This intentional time around the table appeals to students from “hospitality cultures” while providing volunteers with the opportunity to build relationships as they look for ways to share the gospel.

Smith talked about his Iraqi friend, Ali, who was one of the first refugees to participate in the Bridges program last year. Smith’s invitations to Ali for morning coffee and conversational English at his home went unanswered, but Smith continued to pray for God to provide an opportunity to share his faith with Ali. Soon, Ali asked Smith to help him find employment after he’d lost his job. Smith jumped at the chance and devoted the next week to helping Ali fill out applications and get to interviews. Ali questioned why Smith would spend three days helping him when his Arabic friends did not.

Students from Asia, Africa and the Middle East enjoy dessert following an ESL lesson.

“What Ali realized was that the only tangible help he was receiving was from Christians,” Smith said. Ali was hired shortly afterward.

Smoak says not all volunteers teach English; some help prepare the meal, provide childcare during the class, or offer transportation to and from the church. “Volunteers have the opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ love to those who would otherwise not even be exposed to the gospel,” he said.

Whitmire suggests the English-as-a-second-language ministry model reflects what Jesus expects of believers in evangelism. “The best missionary is someone who has received Christ and then can go back and share the gospel with his or her own people,” she said.

— Julia Bell writes for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.