ESL Ministry Adds to Decades of Meeting Needs For Internationals


It was Unit 2. The subject was Places. It was the identification of government buildings, schools, grocery stores and hospitals.

“OK, class, one thing I need to remind you,” Ann Heard said. “If there’s more than one, don’t forget to put the ‘s’ on there. ‘There are four hospitals.’ If you say four hospital, it’s not correct. It’s hospitals.”

Heads nod. Not the heads of, say, third-grade children, but adults whose previous homes had been Iran, Iraq, Burma, the Congo, and Bosnia.

It’s a Thursday morning in rooms along the first floor of First Baptist Church. Duck into any of them and, for two hours, there are volunteer teachers unlocking language obstacles to immigrants and refugees to Amarillo. The scene repeats itself on Sunday afternoons.

It’s English as a Second Language (ESL), a quiet but essential ministry at FBC that has been teaching English in some form for more than 50 years. On one weekday morning and one weekend afternoon, when most might believe the church is still and empty, it’s bubbling with a combined 26 volunteer teachers, as many as 30 volunteer van drivers, and 140 adult students across the city representing as many as 25 countries.

“There always has been and remains a great need. More than English, they also have contact with a caring person who wants to help them,” said director Sue Kelly. “When you come to another country, you don’t know how to live there.

“When buying medicine, can you read the label and know how much to take?

How do you communicate with your doctor? You don’t know how to negotiate the health care system. Without speaking English, you can’t read the notes your child brings home from school or talk to a teacher in a parent-teacher conference. ”

The ESL ministry got its origin in 1964 through the Latin American Mission. Its first students were primarily Korean wives of servicemen from the Korean War, refugees from Castro’s Cuba, and Hispanics.

As the world has changed, Amarillo has changed, and the ESL ministry has adapted. In the mid- to late-1970s, after the fall of Vietnam, almost 12,000 Southeast Asians arrived in Amarillo from refugee camps, with about 3,000 remaining in Amarillo.

About 400 refugees from Bosnia began to arrive in the mid-1990s from that war-torn country. The late 1990s was also when Kurds from Iraq came to Amarillo. By then, nine countries were represented in the ESL ministry.

Over the next decade, refugees from Iraq and Iran and Myanmar would join them, as well as an influx from unstable African countries of Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Congo.

“It takes a brave person to leave their home country for a foreign one and start over again, which is what they’ve done,” Kelly said.

Sue Kelly marks 45 years of faithful teaching and leading.

Kelly began teaching in ESL 44 years ago in 1975, the same year as the fall of Saigon and right at the time Vietnamese and Laotian refugees began to arrive. She has never stopped. A rough estimate is 1,500 adult students have made their way into the ESL ministry during Kelly’s tenure.

“She is amazing, absolutely amazing,” said teacher Ella Tracy of Kelly. “She is just everything to those students. Her concern, love and dedication... I mean you simply could not ask for any more.”

In the early days, teachers had to devise their own lesson plans and curriculum.

But in the latter years, there are ESL curriculums and textbooks to use. In this ESL ministry, there are three class levels: ABC, beginning, and advanced.

The ABC level is just what it says. It’s for adults with no English grasp at all. They begin by learning the alphabet, by writing their names, and learning to complete basic forms.

“Students just beam,” Kelly said, “when they write their name for the first time.”

Students in the beginning class learn vocabulary words and improve on reading and writing. In the advanced class, current events are discussed. Short stories and magazine articles are read.

Linda Richards (pictured to the right) is an experienced teacher of an advanced class. On this November morning, students from Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, and Sudan were learning parts of a newspaper and the role of a free press.

Sami Askari of Iran was one of the students. In his 60s, Askari arrived in Amarillo in 2015 with two sisters and a nephew.

Askari was an English teacher in Iran for 35 years. But there, he said, the focus was on grammar and not conversation. After the Iranian revolution, teachers could get in trouble for teaching conversational English.

“Like now, my talking is better, but my understanding is difficult,” he said. “Sometimes I want to cry, you know. I work hard to study, but younger ones understand better than me.”

Askari, who enjoys writing, is too hard on himself. His communication in English is good. He is earnest in his conversation. Askari has been going to ESL classes at FBC and at Paramount Baptist since arriving in Amarillo four years ago.

“It has helped a lot – a lot,” he said. “I want to tell you, because I’m a teacher myself, but Linda has improved me. She is a very good teacher. She could be teaching in college.”

There is the spiritual portion of the two-hour class as well. Students have a weekly

Bible verse, and all classes gather as Kelly delivers a Bible story followed by snacks. Then it’s back to class.

“We have people who have been coming for 10 years,” Kelly said, “and some also see it as a social outing in a way to get to see friends. A couple of weeks ago, we had to cancel class because of snow. One teacher called one of her students, and she said, ‘No school, no church, nooooo.’ But then for others, it’s a real sacrifice because they may have worked all night.”

As often happens, the benefits and blessings are not just to those being ministered, but to the volunteers. Tracy has been an ESL teacher since 1998 after 31 years as a third-grade teacher at Lawndale and Sleepy Hollow elementary schools.

She gives witness bracelets to students who have taken some of them to their home country when they visit. The six colored beads are blue for creation, black for sin, red for the blood of Jesus, white for cleansing, green for growing in the Word, and yellow for Heaven.

“It’s just been a part of my life for so long. I love it and as long as the Lord allows me to do it, I’ll do it,” Tracy said. “We just want to make a difference. They’re people like we are – just different. We love them and want them to know we love them.”

Note: Due to the pandemic, the Spring ESL semester was ended prematurely. Pictures seen here predate the U.S. Covid-19 response.

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