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Michigan Church Offers Language Learners Practice Time With Native Speakers

Amanda Cisneros teaches Spanish and English classes at Lee Street Christian Reformed Church.
Greg Chandler

At Lee Street Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Mich., church members and neighbors of the congregation are taking part in a crossover program where English speakers are learning Spanish, and Spanish speakers are learning English. 

The program takes place Thursday nights. For one hour, English speakers learn Spanish, and for another hour, Spanish speakers learn English. In between is a 30-minute crossover period where participants get to practice what they’ve learned. 

“We put people at tables. We mix them up so that English speakers are talking in Spanish to the Spanish speakers, and then the Spanish speakers talking in English to the English speakers,” said Joel Van Dyke, one of the pastors at Lee Street.  

“It creates relationships around tables where each is learning the language of the other. Each (participant) is able to share their heart language with the other.” 

Lee Street is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Wyoming with a large immigrant population, primarily from Central America. Almost 90 percent of the students at the local high school, located one block from the church, are Hispanic, said Van Dyke, who once led a ministry in Guatemala that was connected to Resonate Global Mission (previously Christian Reformed World Missions). 

A company called EdConnect runs the language classes at Lee Street. Its founder, Amanda Cisneros, taught Spanish for 17 years at Holland (Mich.) Christian High School. She had been looking for a space to offer her classes after a previous site was no longer available. Some members of Lee Street had been learning Spanish from Cisneros and suggested the idea of offering the church as a new location. 

The crossover classes fit perfectly with Lee Street’s mission to be fully integrated with its community. Van Dyke said the church uses the phrase “building bridges to otherness” to express its intent of connecting with its neighbors. 

“We want to (see) Latino families and North American families, who arrive with different perspectives, hanging out together, being in fellowship, (and) building authentic friendships,” Van Dyke said. 

“We want a church that clearly represents the diversity and the beauty of the diversity within our neighborhood.” 

Brenda Addie, who became a member at Lee Street about a year and a half ago after the church she had been attending closed its doors, enjoys the Spanish classes. 

“I’m wanting to learn Spanish so I can interact with Spanish speakers in our congregation,” Addie said. “I also run the PowerPoint (during Sunday worship services). A lot of times we have both languages up on the screen, but it’s helpful to know the Spanish. I can read it better than I can converse in it.” 

About 20 people for whom English is their primary language are taking the Spanish classes, and about 15 people for whom Spanish is their first language are learning English, Cisneros said. 

“It’s been really neat to see the English speakers and the Spanish speakers put themselves out there and practice the opposite language together,” Cisneros said. “That can be really hard or intimidating for people, but then a lot of them say it’s their favorite part of the class.” 

The church began offering the eight-week courses last fall. Those who complete the first level are able to continue with more advanced instruction. A new session will be offered in April, Cisneros said. 

There is a charge for the classes, but the church offers scholarships for those who might otherwise be unable to pay for them, Van Dyke said.


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