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Helping ‘the stranger’: Windsor UMC helps nonnative speakers learn desperately needed English skills

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA — It’s a chilly January morning in northeast Columbia, but the halls of Windsor United Methodist Church are warm and bustling with life.

Men and women of all ages and skin colors chatter as they walk quickly to their classrooms, ready to begin the day. Down the hall, the nursery is alive with sound and color. Hola! How are you?  a woman greets another, planting a loud kiss on her cheek. A swirl of English, Spanish and other languages fills the air.

But just as quickly, the bustle moves into the classrooms. The halls empty save for a few latecomers, who dash to their rooms.

For the 80 or so English as a Second Language students who gather at Windsor UMC three mornings a week, this is serious business. They are learning to communicate in a foreign land. And despite the levity, for many of them there is little more important than this.

A lot of these people come from countries where they couldn t go to school, where school was limited to upper-class and more fortunate people, so they are just so grateful to have the opportunity,  said volunteer Suzanne Sloan.

Now that they are in the U.S., Sloan said, they often live in enclaves, communities where they all speak the same language, so many don t have the chance to speak English beyond these classes.

They are just so grateful, and they work so hard,  Sloan said.

The ESL classes at Windsor are offered in collaboration with Richland County School District Two s ESL Program and Adult Education Program, and Windsor allows the district to use the space for free. On Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon, the district offers ESL, General Education Development and other classes at Windsor, where the students not only have the chance to learn needed skills, but also can rest assured they are in a place where God loves them “ and so do His people.

Any way we can reach out to folks of any nationality for Christ suits me,  said Windsor pastor the Rev. Tony Rowell, citing how Windsor is an outreach sort of church. I ve always said if the church doesn t have a mission, it s not a church “ it s a country club.  And that building is never closed. 

Essential skills

The students say these classes are extremely important to them. Many of them learn English, go on to get their GED and then progress to college.

Julia Vargas, who moved to the U.S. from Colombia five years ago, has advanced degrees in her native country. But here, she struggles to communicate.

I need every day that I am going to school,  said Vargas, who spends most of her time with people who speak the same language she does. I don t have discipline to learn on my own. And when I talk on the phone, it is with my mom, and all in Spanish. 

At first, she had much difficulty with the language, often confusing ball  and bull,  have  and hab,  when  and where.  Now, enrolled in the Level III/IV advanced ESL class, she is grasping English much better.

This is necessary for me,  Vargas said.

Not all of the students at Windsor are Spanish-speaking; the classes also draw students from Bulgaria, Vietnam and Korea.

Maria Bodurova, who moved to the U.S. four years ago from Bulgaria, said she, too, depends on the support she gets at Windsor, which she calls a big, wonderful group. 

I want to communicate better with the American people,  she said simply, a broad smile on her face.

Others, while improving their English skills, are focusing on getting their GED and possibly moving on to college. They are people like Aida Rivera, a young woman with big gold hoop earrings and a determined expression on her face, who wants to do criminal justice work for the FBI; Elsy Lanza, glasses perched on her nose as she studies her papers intently, who hopes to get a better job once she achieves her degree; Margarito Asaen, who just wants to be able to help his children with their homework; Condina Miranda, who holds her baby and reveals dreams of finishing high school, going to college and one day becoming a math and Spanish teacher; and Martine Rodriguez, who wants to improve himself and be a good example for his brothers, and maybe enter the U.S. Army.

These people want to learn to read and write in English, as well as converse,  said Sloan, minister of music at Asbury Memorial UMC who has taught Basic and Level I classes at Windsor. They want to be Americans, belong, be just like everybody else. They try so hard to learn our language and our ways. It makes you so ashamed of what you take for granted, like education. 

Sue Dillon, a member of Windsor and retired educator who teaches the GED class, said her heart goes out to the students, who continue to impress her over and over again.

These are people who are struggling to get where they want to be,  Dillon said. They are struggling to be a successful American and mainly a successful parent. 

Volunteers lives changed, too

Besides their benefit to the students, the ESL classes also enhance the lives of the volunteers who help the ministry.

Sloan first heard the call about a year ago, when she was having her bathroom renovated. She primarily works at her day job  “ music ministry “ from home, and there were subcontractors in and out of her house for months. Most of the workers spoke Spanish, but Sloan did not speak the language, so they would often rely on gestures and other nonverbal ways to communicate.

But when she met their families, and their children began to play in her front yard, her heart began to open even further. She started to look at the world from their perspective, and began to understand their often-daily struggles to live a normal life in a foreign land. And she began to realize how essential language is to basic survival.

It occurred to me that as long as we can face each other, we can act things out, but if your child is sick and you need to make a doctor s appointment, you can t act things out over the phone,  Sloan said. There s certain English you need to know just to get along in this country. 

God began to give her a deep well of love for these people, these strangers in a strange land. Soon she couldn t deny that love “ or her new call “ any longer. She made a few phone calls and learned of an active ESL ministry in the Columbia District of the UMC. In September, she began volunteering at Windsor; another district church, Brookland UMC, in West Columbia, hosts evening ESL classes. Someday soon, Sloan hopes to establish a language outreach ministry at her own church, Asbury Memorial.

Today she considers her call to the ministry a miracle. 

Before, I never thought about immigrants at all, not positively or negatively. My sphere of influence was basically people just in the church,  Sloan said.

Now, she is more aware of the needs of people around her, and she is ready and willing to accept the call to serve them.

It s changed my life, really opened it up,  Sloan said. God opened a whole new world to me. He gave me a heart for these hardworking people. I couldn t get them off my mind. 

For Dillon, who has been involved with the ESL ministry from the moment it came to Windsor, the work she does lays on her heart.

I didn t know how much I would love these folks,  Dillon said. <
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While she has a sister who is a missionary in the Dominican Republic, Dillon herself does not speak Spanish, so she never imagined she could be helpful in a language outreach ministry. To her surprise, the classes at Windsor have become a significant way she can serve the Lord and these people in need.

I feel that Jesus set the example for us to do this kind of work, and I am trying to follow that example,  Dillon said.

Volunteers for the language outreach ministry at Windsor UMC are always needed and welcome. For more information or to volunteer, call the church at 803-788-1858.

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