On a Wednesday night at First Christian Reformed Church in Oostburg, Wisc., the hundreds gathered for a family meal in the fellowship room include a few adult students learning English in the church’s twice-a-month free language classes. Sandy Gartman makes up a to-go meal for one student she knows is working late.
Gartman is a tutor and organizer for the church’s English as a Second Language program. She said they chose to schedule the classes on the second and fourth Wednesdays in order to match up with the church’s long-running once-a-month community meal and Wednesday-night youth programs.
As the parents study English, the middle school and high school children attend youth group while First CRC volunteers entertain the younger children with games, crafts, and snacks. This regular rhythm, with 13 church members participating as teachers and childcare providers, has been five years in the making.
Gartman, an educator at a local school district, noticed many parents required translators to communicate with teachers. Tom Soerens, a retired pastor and missionary from Costa Rica also attending First CRC, was often called on. Together with another church member, a college student with a minor in ESL, they wondered how they could help.
Oostburg is a town of about 3,000 with many businesses—including manufacturers and mink and dairy farms—where newcomers to the area find work. They come from many different home countries, but the students at First CRC are all Hispanic. “Most of the adult students work in the area and know very little English,” Gartman and Soerens told The Banner. “Some are relatives, co-workers, or neighbors. They come from various countries, but all have the common goal to learn English so they can better function at their jobs and in society,” they wrote.
Classes began with five students in 2018. “We expanded our group in 2019, but COVID largely stopped activity in March 2020. Beginning in February 2021, classes began again with a few students interested in meeting in person. For the remainder of that year and the beginning of 2022, the same faithful five students came to class,” the leaders said. Since the current season started in September 2022 about 20 students have attended each meeting. The season ends in May.
Gartman said the program covers reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and the curriculum spans multiple years and is suited for multiple skill levels. “ESL began with one student and one tutor working together. Now that the program has grown, several students are grouped with one tutor, based on the amount of English they know,” she explained. The goal is to complete one book a year.
Recently First CRC celebrated that achievement for several students at a bilingual church service highlighting the English-language ministry. Soerens preached, delivering his sermon in English and Spanish; two students read Scripture and prayed, in both languages; and the congregation sang hymns and songs in both languages—with at least a chorus or a verse sung in the other tongue. Gartman said it was a joy-filled service.
The program has been a blessing on many levels, she said. “Friendships have been made. A tutor helped practice driving with a student. Tutors and students have invited each other to their homes. One family has joined the church.” And the changes haven’t just benefited church members. “Now that employers locally noticed the language barrier decreasing, connections for employment have been made, bilingual Bibles (have been) handed out, and one of the students is now a tutor.”
Those involved pray “that God will continue to work through the relationships to build greater community with new friends,” the leaders said.