Amarillo Church’s Language Ministry Equips Internationals from Twenty-Five Nations

ue Kelly (center), director of International Friends at First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas, visits with participants in the ministry’s English as a Second Language program. The International Friends ESL classes often involve more than two hundred students from up to twenty-five countries. WMU photo by Pam Henderson

Ministering to internationals is nothing new for First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas. In fact, the current program’s early roots date back to World War II and the Korean War.

According to Sue Kelly, director of the church’s English as a Second Language ministry, as American servicemen came back from those conflicts, many of them returned home with Japanese and Korean war brides who had little or no English skills. For those who settled in Amarillo, volunteers from First Baptist organized language classes to help the women navigate their new culture.

Today, decades later, First Baptist’s International Friends ministry continues to thrive. Weekly ESL classes held on Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons often attract more than two hundred students from up to twenty-five countries. While the coronavirus pandemic cut short this year’s spring semester, plans are under way to launch ESL fall classes next month over Zoom.

The church also serves refugees and other internationals with worship services held in six languages each week—Burundi, Congolese, Karen, Laotian, and Vietnamese as well as English. Additionally, a rich blend of as many as ten languages can be heard joyfully spilling out of the international Sunday School department on any given Sunday morning.

Sue Kelly, director of First Baptist, Amarillo’s International Friends
ministry, teaches chronological Bible storying as part of the ESL
program. “We want them to get the whole sweep of the Bible
story, God’s great story from creation to Revelation,” Kelly
explained. WMU photo by Pam Henderson

“Amarillo really has a very high refugee population for its size,” explained Kelly, who has coordinated the International Friends ESL program for more than twenty years. “We just feel like the Lord brought them here and we want to help them feel at home, welcome them, teach them English so that they can have friends in the community and so they can get better jobs.”

Along with teaching language skills, Kelly emphasized that sharing about Christ also is an important aspect of ESL ministry. Noting that “each class starts with a Bible verse,” she said, “We try to pick a verse that kind of fits with the English because they come for the English.

“We offer Bibles and Jesus videos in their own language and we have a Bible story for the large group,” she added. “You see people from all different countries and all different backgrounds singing the songs and saying the Bible verses and learning about Jesus.”

Kelly first got involved in ESL in 1975, the same year as the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War which sparked an influx of refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Over the years since then, Amarillo has welcomed refugees fleeing turmoil in Bosnia, Burma, Iran, Iraq, and several African countries.

‘God Spared Me for a Better Job’

Boon Vongsurith, pastor of the Laotian congregation affiliated
with First Baptist Church of Amarillo, escaped from Laos to
Thailand in 1975 amid religious persecution. Forty-five years
later, he still treasures the Bible that he carried with him as
he escaped Laos by swimming across the treacherous Mekong
River. WMU photo by Pam Henderson

Boon Vongsurith, pastor of First Baptist’s Laotian congregation, was among those who escaped from Laos to Thailand after being held captive because of his Christian faith. Sensing God’s direction to flee the persecution of his home country, he carefully wrapped his Bible in a plastic bag before swimming into the freezing Mekong River dividing Laos and Thailand.

“The two river banks were closed and anything that moved, they would shoot one another. I prayed to God, one prayer, two parts,” Vongsurith recounted. “I said, ‘God, I know in my head I will be drowned or killed escaping from Laos to Thailand. If I die, I pray someone will find my dead body and know that I’m a believer because of the Bible with me. But if you spare me, I will serve you any place, any time.’”

More than forty-five minutes later, he made it safely across the river and into Thailand. “This Bible is very important to me,” he said, gently holding aloft the treasured Bible he has carried with him for decades.

Declaring that “God spared me for a better job,” Vongsurith said, “The Laotian ministry here is from birth to burial. . . . Working with Laotians is a very high honor for me because I love my God and I serve my own people.”

Kelly noted that the ESL program’s “International Friends” title was very intentional. “We want to teach them English but we also want to be their friends and just get to know them,” she explained.

Affirming that “it’s fascinating” to build relationships with people from around the world, she added, “I just enjoy getting to know them and have been in their homes and they’ve been in my home.”

International Friends offers ABC, beginning conversation, and advanced ESL training as well as GED and citizenship classes and private tutoring. The classes are led by a team of more than twenty teachers who volunteer their time each week.

Whether in person or online, the program continues to focus on each participant gradually becoming fluent in English. “That doesn’t always happen because of where they start,” Kelly acknowledged. “If they have grown up and lived in a war-torn country all their lives where the schools were not even operating and they never learned to read and write in their first language . . . and now they’re adults in a country that doesn’t speak their native language, obviously they’re not going to be fluent readers and writers and speakers.”

Even amid those challenges, she added, many of the ESL students do learn to speak English fluently while reading and writing skills often remain harder to master.

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Source: Baptist Press