By Ansley Brackin
Winters Chapel UMC and Tucker First UMC believe it is always appropriate to ask for help when it comes to walking a new path in ministry. Tucker First UMC decided to observe one of the North Georgia Conference’s highly successful ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs, created and still growing at Winters Chapel UMC in Doraville, as inspiration for their own newborn program.
Winters Chapel UMC’s Rev. Shelia Preacher recalls standing in the same place as Tucker First when they began their ministry. When suggested by the district office that the congregation reach out to the non-English speaking community surrounding the church, Preacher sought guidance from the Office of Hispanic Ministry’s then-Associate Director, Nora Colmenares.
Preacher connected with several ESOL-serving churches where she and other involved congregants observed how classes were run.
“If other churches have something up and going,” she suggests, “let’s use them.”
The program at Winters Chapel consists of 4 teachers, hired out of Kennesaw State University, and runs by a semester system. They offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced class options. Their first three years brought in 683 different adults and children.
Attending the church is certainly not a requirement, but the congregation does its best to make the option appealing and comfortable for their English-learning visitors. They have offered bilingual services during special seasons and celebrations, and there is a prayer time open before each class.
Leigh Andersen, a member of Tucker First learned of the Doraville church’s success through Dr. Phil Schroeder and Dr. Juan Quintanilla of the Office of Congregational Development in a discussion on how to better meet the needs of the Tucker community, as charged by the church counsel.
Anderson observed several of the Winters Chapel’s classes, then sought teachers out of the qualified pool of students at Gwinnett Tech among other programs. One teacher is a Tucker First member and is a retired elementary school teacher with ESOL credentials.
She then assembled volunteers to construct and deliver promotional flyers and business cards to local restaurants, stores, the library, and health centers. A banner also hangs in front of the church.
The first class which started in August of this year consisted of about 20 adults, and they have taught and cared for as many as 20 children at one time. Tucker First offers the same instructional levels and implemented the same testing process to properly place students in the correct level.
Fourteen different countries are represented in the classroom, mostly Spanish speaking, but European languages, Pakistani, Korean, and more are counted for.
Preacher could not be more excited for the multicultural family their fellow ESOL programmers have nurtured.
“The world is not ‘out there’ anymore, it’s here, on our doorsteps,” she said.
One of the top requirements for a successful program, Anderson believes, is to embrace a “loving heart and open mind”.
Both programs have found that families need the classes most for communicating at work and communicating with teachers and caretakers of their children. For many, the class is a family affair. Often times, more advanced English speakers will volunteer to help the beginner students while their spouse or family member takes the class.
Tucker First looks forward to hosting a Thanksgiving feast with the students. They’ll invite everyone to bring a dish to represent their country. Both ESOL programs have had success in encouraging children to join kids’ choir, bringing families into the congregations to watch the performances. Tucker also offers free piano and guitar lessons.
“Understand that it takes a lot of planning,” Andersen advices, who took over a year to prepare before officially launching the Tucker program.
There is no “cookie cutter program” when it comes to starting an ESOL program. Each congregation must assess the needs of their community and the abilities of the congregation. Below are several questions Rev. Shelia Preacher believes churches should ask themselves while considering the formation of a language program.