ESL classes connect church to community, Christ’s mission

By the Rev. Michael Hood

WEST COLUMBIA—This spring, a new sound was heard in the halls of Platt Springs United Methodist Church. It was heard in the sanctuary, the classrooms and the fellowship hall. It was the sound of native-born Spanish-speakers, trying to learn a new language.

Starting in January and going until the school’s summer break, Platt Springs and Lexington County School District 2 teamed up to teach English as a Second Language to people in the area who wanted to improve their English skills.

One of our members, a volunteer teacher in the ESL program, told us, “I used to be one of those people who said, ‘If they want to live in America, they should learn English.’ Then one day I realized I should be helping them learn.”

The great thing about the ESL program, from Platt Springs’ perspective, is that the school district takes care of providing teachers and materials and advertising the classes. The only thing officially required of the church is that we provide space for the classes, and during the spring we chose to provide childcare and mid-class snacks for the students, as well.

Over the course of the program, we had 35-40 adults participate in learning English or adding to what they already know, and nearly as many children attended our childcare. We had three classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, and childcare was divided between children 4 and younger and those from 5 to 11.

To participate in the classes, the adults had to be at least 17 years old. The majority of our students were Spanish-speakers, and they came from several Latin American countries.

Looking toward the fall, we anticipate continuing the program with more help from nearby churches. We used several volunteers from local UMCs and the University of South Carolina’s Methodist Student Network to help with childcare, and we hope that in the fall we can get help and participation for more churches with snacks and childcare.

One of the benefits of this opportunity, surprising in some ways, is that language hasn’t proven to be a big barrier to doing this particular ministry. Our volunteers who’ve helped with childcare quickly realized that school-age children speak English already, so helping with the kids has proven to be something anyone can do. Likewise, because the purpose of these classes is teaching English, even the adults are encouraged to speak English as much as possible. Many volunteers’ initial fears have been soothed by the realization they are already gifted with the ability to do this ministry.

Over the past year at Platt Springs, in addition to English classes, we’ve hosted a Quinceañera (a traditional church service for a young girl turning 15), a health fair geared toward Latinos and a birthday party for a Latina girl. ESL classes have given participants a chance to spend time at our church and even interact with some of our members. We are hopeful that ESL will serve as an opening for Hispanic/Latino community, helping these individuals feel comfortable at Platt Springs and, eventually, leading to them worshipping alongside us because they know they are welcome.

We are called, by Jesus Christ, to proclaim the availability of God’s grace to all the world, and our denomination reminds us the job of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” ESL classes at Platt Springs have proven to be an excellent way to proclaim God’s grace and make disciples, forming new relationships in our community.

Hood pastors Platt Springs UMC, West Columbia.

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