An Oasis for Immigrants Amid a Bewildering Culture
By Jay Copp

The students learning English in a basement room at the church complex grapple tonight with a series of sports-based idioms: “par for the course,” “get to first base,” and “have to punt.”

Teacher Faith Limmer explains the last one: “I have class, and I leave all my notes at home. So I have to punt.” 

A woman from India in the class, the highest level of four at the church, shoots up her hand. “You had to find an alternative?” 

“That’s perfect,” Limmer responds enthusiastically.

In a month or so, dozens of students will converge on the home of Donald and Faith Limmer, bearing native dishes from Mexico, Korea, Pakistan and some of the other 25 nations that the 90 students in the program hail from. The Limmers will prepare typical American fare such as hamburgers and hot dogs; they host the get-together as a gesture of friendship and solidarity. 

“There’s a real loneliness and alienation for people from the international community,” says Donald, who directs the ESL (English as a second language) initiative. “The vast majority of them never get into an American home. They do not make friends with Americans.”

The classes are less about enabling students to grab a piece of the American pie and more about them sitting down for pie with fellow Americans.

Since 2017 the 500-member Naperville Presbyterian Church, located in the suburb 30 miles west of Chicago, has taught English as a second language. Church members provide rides to the weekly sessions if needed. Other volunteers show up early to serve as conversational partners for extra practice in English or come on Fridays for fireside conversations.  

Students have become fast friends with one another and with their instructors. The students and teachers not only talk together but walk together in Naperville parks, trade recipes, and otherwise get to know one another and offer the support and friendship needed beyond language skills to make America not only a place to live but a home.

“It’s been an adventure, a joy I did not expect. Getting to know people has been an incredible gift,” says Faith Limmer, who this past week has been regularly visiting a Mexican student in the hospital who was in danger of losing his foot after a forklift accident at work.

An Affluent Community Where Immigrants Hide in Plain Sight

At first glance, Naperville may seem an odd location for an ESL program. It’s a prosperous, tree-lined suburb with a median household income of $109,000 and a bustling downtown. Nearly 77 percent of its 148,000 residents are white. It’s also one of the top 10 most educated cities in America with 71 percent of its adults with a college degree. 

Free-style Scrabble game before an English language class 

Yet immigrants are hiding in plain sight. Adjoining Naperville are suburbs teeming with first-generation newcomers, many struggling to get by. Claudia Maturino came to the United States from Mexico a dozen years ago. “I didn’t know how to say no or hello,” says Maturino, an office cleaner who previously spent $450 for an English literacy class at a local community college. “I want to speak English fluently. I want people to understand me.”

She enjoys her Level 4 class at the church. “Everyone makes you feel welcome,” she says.

The church is an oasis for immigrants amid a bewildering culture. To ignore them is un-Christian, says Donald Limmer, a former Congregational minister now a regular member of the church in Naperville. 

“The Bible is filled with passages about the stranger, the sojourner, the alien,” he says. “It’s filled with commands to provide for them what they need. This is a no-brainer for us. Sometimes people have a warm and fuzzy Christianity. They need to get out of their comfort zone.”

Other immigrants enrolled in the program are wives of men with good jobs in the corporate world. “The spouse is here for work and speaks flawless English,” says Donald. “[The wives are] stuck by themselves and isolated at home. The spouse asks them to try to learn English. Then it’s a bigger world they can live in.”

Classroom sessions and vocabulary lists focus on commonplace actions. “It’s everyday things such as going to the grocery store. BOGO—what is that? What kind of signs do they see when they go to the airport to pick up a loved one?” says Donald.

The program was the brainchild of Associate Pastor Davy Chu, a self-described “mission kid” who knew firsthand the struggle of not speaking the predominant language: he had to learn Chinese while in Asia. 

To publicize the program, the church initially posted street banners, left flyers at ethnic grocery stores, and even paid Google so its program was more likely to come up for searches for ESL programs. It’s a measure of the program’s success that word-of-mouth now produces new students.

Instructors take a two-day training session. Some take it three times. Repeating it helps drive home its main principles, including taking into account cultural nuances. “One teacher kept saying, ‘That’s awesome,’ and gave a thumbs-up. In some Arab cultures that’s a symbol for up-yours,” says Donald with a chuckle.

Faith Limmer, Level 4 Advanced teacher with class

Getting to ‘a Good Place’

Dave Huff, 66, a church member, arrives early on the literacy nights to serve as a conversational partner. He’s befriended a woman from Taiwan. Once she misunderstood his inquiry about her son, and it’s turned into a running joke, one indicative of the bond between them. “Here I am—your son!” he grins as they meet.

Later that night, on his cell phone, he eagerly recounts the story to his own son, who was raised in the church but began to drift away while in college. He hopes his example of service will relight the faith of his son. “With millennials, it’s way past ‘this is what the Bible says.’ Millennials are impressed not by words but by action, by compassion. This can move the needle with a millennial,” says Huff, a former Baptist minister who now drives a school bus.

Huff knows that, for some immigrants, feeling at home here can be easier than climbing the economic ladder. Another couple he’s befriended are from Mexico. They both work for chain restaurants. “It’s hard to break the cycle—either restaurant work or landscaping. But when I just chat with her, I sense she’s in a good place now,” he says.

Tonight, in a Level 3 class, staffed by a teacher and two aides, the eight students are focused on a slide that details the various weekend plans of a group of employees at a workplace. “Gary will work in his garden,” and “Diane will hike in the mountains,” reads the slide, full of illustrative pictures. 

“Jim is going to have a picnic” too, perfectly emblematic of the difficulty of English. “‘Going to’ means something that will happen in the future,” the instructor says. But he adds, “People don’t talk that way. It’s turned into ‘gonna.’”

The students frequently repeat sentences together. The instructors don’t need to prod them, and no one’s attention lapses. They are here because they want to be.

An Enriched Life in the Community

The church knows it can teach only so much English one night a week. Immigrants interested in passing a proficiency exam for employment are more likely to cough up hundreds of dollars for courses elsewhere. Here the only fee is $30 for books. Despite the low cost, the dropout rate of less than 20 percent is much lower than that of more professional programs.

Junia Mulia, Hospitality Coordinator (Snacks!) with Level 2 student Vicky Lin, Taiwa

“Our program is conversational and relational,” says Donald. “It’s for them to have a more enriched life in their neighborhood and community.” Or, to put it another way, the classes are less about enabling students to grab a piece of the American pie and more about them sitting down for pie with fellow Americans.

Some of the instructors themselves understand better than anyone the value of learning English. Frank Calzaretta grew up to become an English teacher and then a director of human resources. But his grandparents came to Chicago from Italy and never learned English. “It isolated them. They stayed near home,” he recalls.

Proselytizing is not part of the agenda. But a Bible verse of the day, translated into the language of every student, is part of a classroom session. “We’re saying, ‘This is what Christians in America believe.’ It helps them to understand part of American culture,” says Donald. “We’ve asked, and no one has said they don’t want to do it.”

In a classroom with 13 female students, teacher Lisa One shows the class a picture of a family sitting down for a Thanksgiving feast. When One points to the main dish, a student says, “Chicken?” 

“A turkey is a big bird, not a chicken,” One explains. 

She asks another student, “Do you eat turkey, Fatima?” 

Fatima nods her head. “Four years. Four years in America,” she elaborates.

Level 2 teacher Lynda Sidwell with students Shuishila (left) and Nebhandas (right) Hemnani, India

One knows how relationships can develop and deepen between instructors and students. Through the church, she and her husband, Keith, also volunteer teaching English to immigrants at World Relief DuPage/Aurora. A couple from Myanmar hang a photo of the Ones on a wall at their home, invite them to family celebrations, and regard them as grandparents to their young children.

Tonight the focus is on an iconic American holiday. “What are you thankful for?” she asks the students. For God, my health, my family, one after the other the students respond in halting English. “I am thankful for my teacher,” a student gushes. 

Jay Copp is a longtime freelance writer. He lives near Chicago with his wife and three children.

Photography by David W. Johnson

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