In Virginia, the census bureau records a steadily increasing percentage of foreign-born residents in the state–from 5% in 1990 to 8.1% in 2000 to 11.5% in 2013. National and State trends mirror the need that swift creek saw in its own backyard.
It was the first night David and June Peat left home to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at Swift Creek Baptist Church in Midlothian. The drive felt long—not only because they live half an hour away but also because they were, says David, “scared to death.” “We didn’t know whether what we were going to do would work. We didn’t know how [or if the] students would receive us. Are we going to be able to understand them? Are they going to be able to understand us?”
After a positive experience the first night, it was easier to go back the next week. “Each time, it gets better and better,” says June. “We absolutely love it.”
The Peats are retired. He owned a trucking company, and she was a nurse. But June was quick to mention, “We’re working harder now than [when] we were working for a living.”
Saying Yes to Serving a Need
The couple started teaching ESL at Swift Creek in 2011, and now David is the church’s ESL director. They also lead training workshops, certifying others to teach ESL. It all began with Rob Brewer, Swift Creek’s then associate pastor of missions and evangelism, working with Sue Sawyer at the SBC of Virginia to start a church ESL ministry. When Brewer invited the congregation to get involved, the Peats said yes.
The church’s ESL ministry grew out of a service project initiative called Swift Creek Cares. In a nutshell, Swift Creek Cares “focused on reaching the needs of the community around our church,” says Brewer.
According to data from the Census Bureau and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the need for ESL ministry is and will continue to be great. MPI conducted a 2015 survey, which found that half of all 43 million immigrants struggle to speak English or don’t speak English at all. In Virginia, the Census Bureau records a steadily increasing percentage of foreign-born residents in the state—from 5% in 1990 to 8.1% in 2000 to 11.5% in 2013. National and state trends mirror the need that Swift Creek saw in its own backyard.
From Speaking English to Speaking the Gospel
David says the fun part of teaching ESL is watching students who were initially nervous and insecure grow and develop in English skills and in relationships with the teachers and the other students.
The Peats work creatively so their students will have fun learning a new language, but ESL can be hard for both the teacher and student. Practicing patience and adjusting expectations have helped David and June push through rough times. They also keep their main goal in mind. While they teach ESL to help their immigrant neighbors learn English, they ultimately do it to share the Gospel.
“When you’re teaching new vocabulary, there are always opportunities to [use] a word that has a biblical meaning,” David explains. Missions can include going overseas or sharing the Gospel with those in your community. David emphasizes, “This ESL program is a mission.”
“Our goal is for everybody to come to know Jesus,” says June. “We incorporate [the Gospel] a lot in the beginning and make sure the student understands what it means.”
Teaching ESL in the Classroom or the Home
Casey and Megan Cagle, both 25, taught ESL to African and Middle Eastern immigrants on a mission trip to Barcelona, Spain. Upon returning home, they realized, like the Peats had, that they could reach the lost through ESL in the US too.
Megan and her husband, Casey, had earned their certification to teach ESL after attending a training workshop at Old Powhatan Baptist Church in Powhatan a few weeks prior to their trip. After they came back, Megan’s schedule allowed her to gain experience teaching small classes. She volunteered for a few months with a local Middle Eastern pastor, who was hosting ESL classes with his wife in their home. It gave her experience and helped build her confidence. Then an opportunity arose for both Casey and Megan to tutor an immigrant family in their home.
Both nervous, Megan and Casey walked towards the family’s apartment door for their first evening of class. They didn’t know much about the students’ culture, and they were still new to ESL. Expecting a couple with little to no English language, Megan prepared for a simple first lesson. Then a woman opened the door and said with a smile, “Hello, welcome to our home.” Needless to say, the Cagles had to think on their feet and adapt their plan quickly.
Opportunities to Share the Gospel
Over time, the Cagles have gotten to know the couple, and they’ve become friends. Discussing cultural differences, food, and holidays has helped them bond and has opened the door to Gospel conversations. “They have been very interested in learning about what we believe as Christians,” says Megan.
Focusing on the Gospel in class began at Christmas. As Megan prepared for the week’s lesson, she took a risk by assigning the story of Jesus’ birth as homework. The couple liked it, and they wanted more. Megan explains, “Now we’ve gone from creation through the resurrection of Jesus.”
Talking about the Gospel was not easy for Megan at first. Watching her husband engage the couple in spiritual conversations helped Megan grow bolder. “It’s a lot more natural than you think it would be, but you still have that moment where you have to decide, Am I going to say something or am I going to let this moment go by?
“They are much more open than I would have expected,” Megan shares. “As much progress as they make, you also [wonder], Are they ever going to see Jesus for who he is? It seems to be so obvious [God is] working in their lives.”
ESL is an open door to plant seeds and let the Lord work. “Ultimately,” says Megan, “He’s going to be the one to save them.”
By Emily Anne Hall – Emily is a member of Parkway Baptist Church (Moseley, VA) and a recent graduate of Liberty University. She currently works for the International Mission Board.
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