Immigrants and refugees have been a hot topic recently, especially since the 2016 US election. At St. Brendan’s, part of our mission is to love all people as our neighbors, and so many people at St. Brendan’s found themselves questioning what they could do to help immigrants and refugees in our area who were now feeling threatened by changes in policy and public opinion. One of St. Brendan’s newest ministries, Conversation Friends, does just that. The Conversation Friends ministry holds weekly conversation groups where those who are learning English as a second language can practice their speaking skills, but it is also a place where immigrants, refugees, and those new to the US can be welcomed into our community.
The Conversation Friends were started this past April by a group of St. Brendan’s members looking to meet what they saw as a growing need in our community, and in our country. It was a collaboration of several different people with different callings and different skills coming together to create this new ministry.
St. Brendan’s had previously held a small English as a Second Language ministry run by St. Brendan’s member Linda, which, due to various circumstances, ended a few years ago. And a few of St. Brendan members have been individually certified to tutor ESL students, so this type of ministry was not new to St. Brendan’s or St. Brendan’s members. Then, in March of 2017, several St. Brendan’s members attended a hearing at the Department of Homeland Security Enforcement with an immigrant, who was facing deportation, to support him and pray with him. This experience captured the hearts of many at St. Brendan’s, who not only welcomed this immigrant into our parish but continued to ask: how can we help; what can we do?
St. Brendan member Joyce suggested developing a ministry to help people improve their ability to converse in English. Joyce hope we could help others better understand the subtleties of the English language, especially as it related to their own safety and protection around some issues developing for immigrants in the United States. The idea began to spread. Another new Brendanite, Jon, reached out to Fr. Regis and jumped into the planning and coordinating of this ministry with exuberance and energy, while another long-time member, Saundy, volunteered to take care of organizing and scheduling. In the past month, Linda has been working on starting a new evening session of the Conversation Friends, and more Brendanites, and other volunteers from outside St. Brendan’s, are continuing to get involved with this growing ministry.
When this ministry started at the end of April 2017, they had four “students”; by July they had eight, and now there are 15 students who attend the Conversation Friends group. The students come from many different backgrounds and bring a diverse range of experiences to the group. In their former homes, they were teachers, biologists, musicians, and held many other interesting jobs. Some are parents, and many have moved to this country with a spouse who got a new job. The students also vary in their English skill levels: some are just learning to speak English while others are looking to refine their skills.
Though the volunteers often call the sessions “classes” and those who attend “students,” this is not a formal classroom setting. Here is how Jon described a typical meeting of the Conversation Friends:
On a typical Tuesday or Thursday, we have around seven to ten students and usually two to four volunteers. We use a two-part system: At the beginning of the class, we introduce something new, such as idioms (many times they relate to that day's discussion topic), vocabulary, ideas on how to listen better, common compound words, etc. After that, about 45 minutes into the class, we take a coffee break. Then we reconvene and the discussion begins. The Group Leader for the day will have sent the students an email with the topic and a few discussion questions they can think about. They prefer to know the discussion topic ahead of time so they can have time to look up English words they may want to use during the discussion.
Discussion topics have included: marriage celebrations in their country and here; differences they noticed here in daily life, school, etc.; flights on airlines; family life and in-laws in their country; hobbies and crafts; life in their hometowns; and one day we discussed newspaper articles they each chose and brought in. We have lately, just last week, added another component to each class: help with pronunciation.
One day, four of the students offered to bring lunch and provided some wonderful Korean and Japanese dishes, including a delicious green-tea flavored dessert!
It was clear from my conversations with those involved in this ministry that these classes are a wonderful chance for both the students and the volunteers to learn about other cultures, to connect with people from different backgrounds, and to help our immigrant neighbors feel more comfortable in their new home.
“Jesus taught us to welcome the stranger and reach out to those who have less than we do,” Joyce said when I asked why she chooses to volunteer with this ministry. She continued, “I have learned a lot through real stories of immigrants from many different countries and their struggles. I admire their fortitude, courage, and grace when talking to them about the reality of their situations. I feel that God is calling us to help them.”
Jon reflected, “I have tutored both ESL and native speakers one-on-one in the past, and each time, I got as much or more out of the experience than did the student. Their growth may have helped them to get a job or to acclimate to America, but the pleasure and satisfaction I derived from getting to know them and being able to help has remained with me."
One of the students, Natalia, was also kind enough to share some of her thoughts about the Conversation Friends:
My husband was transferred from Brazil to the USA. Everything was very fast, and I did not imagine that our lives would change so fast. It's been 10 months since we were in Pittsburgh. We have a 4-year-old daughter [and] … it was very difficult to get a school for a child who did not speak the language, and if my daughter did not have a school I would not be able to study. … The little English I speak is what I learned with my daughter, who today speaks fluently, watching TV cartoons.
I was at a meeting at my daughter's school and [another] mother [saw that I was having difficulty understanding] everything the teacher told me about school; that mother asked for my phone number and sent me a message with the information for the class [at St. Brendan’s]. From the first contact [with the Conversation Friends, and] for the first time [in this country,] I felt welcomed, I felt good, even without understanding very well. After starting classes [at St. Brendan’s], I started to smile more because in my classes I met people who are patient to teach —people who, even without understanding me, are willing to interpret my [gestures]. Thank you to all the organizers for [your] patience and willingness with me; … you certainly are very special! May God bless each one of you! Thank you very much.
This ministry has touched the hearts of all those involved and has become much more than just an ESL class. It is a chance to support our immigrant neighbors as they face the challenges of adapting to a new language and a new culture; it is a chance to welcome others into our community.
The scriptures that Jesus' studied, our Old Testament, taught Israel: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NRSV). Jesus must have learned this lesson well, for Matthew’s Gospel recounts Jesus telling a parable that has this to say of strangers and our treatment of them: “’I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ … Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, … when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you …?’ ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (see Matthew 25:30-40). Conversation Friends extends St. Brendan’s family.
The Conversation Friends currently meet at St. Brendan’s from 10 am to 12 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. An evening session is also currently being planned so that students and volunteers who work during the daytime also have an opportunity to participate. If you are interested in being a volunteer or know someone who might be interested in practicing their English skills, please contact St Brendan’s at (412) 364-5974 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace and peace,
Annemarie, with special help this week from fellow Brendanite, Jon!
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A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please let me know! If you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com.