In the past four decades hundreds of thousands of immigrants have come to live in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia. In Fairfax County, 35% of residents five years old and older speak a language other than English at home and students in the Fairfax County public schools speak more than 100 languages. Arlington County’s school children come from more than 125 countries. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, said “The world is my parish,” but for the churches in Northern Virginia, “The world is IN our parish.”
While our newest neighbors have brought wonderful diversity to our community, the immigrant experience is often personally difficult. Academic studies – and our own experiences – show that new immigrants often feel lonely, socially isolated, lacking in self-esteem, and even helpless. Many are without a system of support to ease their transition to a new country and a new language. We must extend a handshake of welcome to our new neighbors in their time of need.
ESL programs are often a revitalizing ministry for congregations, helping them to gain insight into what their neighborhoods (and neighbors) really are. ESL helps “take the blinders off” congregations who exist in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, but don’t yet realize the possibilities of ministry to – and with – these neighbors. Most important, ESL programs help local congregations get to know immigrants as real people, not as stereotypes. This is truly a people-to-people program, building bridges where none may have existed before.
Though this ministry of compassion is valid in and of itself, as a mission of the church, it is important to keep in mind that it is also a valuable means of evangelism. We have the opportunity to reach individuals who are in not only social need, but also spiritual need. Many of those whom we are currently teaching are struggling with issues of legal status, employment, health care, separation from children and spouses, and desperate loneliness. An ESL program can identify those in need and seek ways to meet those needs.
With a shared language, it is possible to build bridges of cultural understanding, community, and friendship. Our desire is that students who come to study English will find in this ministry hope, dignity, faith, and, perhaps most important, friendship and welcome.
Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And to this we would add, “I did not know English and you taught me.”
(Photo by J)