One of the worst days of Elidamares (“Eli”) de Almeida’s life was the day she had to take her husband to the doctor with her. The 40-something elementary school teacher from Brazil had recently immigrated with her family to the U.S. She knew very little English and was almost completely dependent on others.
In Brazil, she was a capable and independent woman with a bachelor’s degree in education. “I was free to do everything I wanted or to solve any kind of problem.” Not so when she came to America.
“I was 100 percent dependent,” she explains. “What most affected me were the simple things I could not do.” Things like taking herself to the doctor and communicating directly about her symptoms. Or calling her son’s school to find out how he was doing academically. Or even going grocery shopping by herself.
“It’s so simple when we know the language,” she says. “But I would go to the supermarket and not know what I would buy, because if the container was transparent, I could see what was inside, but if it wasn’t transparent, I had no idea.”
Although her family had originally moved to Atlanta in late 2005 for her husband Firmino’s job as a mechanical engineer, six months later they relocated to Dayton, Ohio. Four years after the move, Eli knew a little English but admits she still felt isolated and dependent. So when she saw a brochure at the library about an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at South Dayton Presbyterian Church, she jumped at the opportunity.
The first class she attended, she felt right at home — a feeling she hadn’t had in a long time.
“I liked the way they received me,” Eli says. It wasn’t just the English that attracted her. It was the group’s patience and understanding. Later, Eli would recognize it as something else — the love of Christ. That was what they had, she now knows. “They could show it, and we could feel it.”
For the Sake of Relevance
Since 2007, when South Dayton PC began offering free conversational English classes, people from more than 20 countries have congregated on Wednesday evenings to learn the language and make new friends. Started by ruling elder and high school principal Jeff Wolff, the ministry offers basic, intermediate, and advanced classes for adults of all ages and nationalities.
In many ways, South Dayton is a strange place for such a gathering. A church of about 170 nestled in Centerville, one of Dayton’s affluent, largely white suburbs, it doesn’t seem the most natural location for an outreach to non-English speakers. Still, Dayton draws an international community through its universities and business culture (with almost 4 percent of the population born outside of the United States, according to Census data). The church didn’t want to miss an opportunity to show hospitality to the nations.
It all began when the church hosted a missions conference where Richard Pratt, president of Third Millennium Ministries, gave a warning to those in attendance. “He said that if we don’t make a special effort to reach out to use our buildings in a way that is community-based, we are going to become insignificant real quick,” Wolff explains.
The church had hosted an ESL Bible study in the past, and Wolff knew there were people in the congregation who were interested in teaching English, so he took the lead and attended a training sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. He then worked with Nancy Booher, head of Mission to North America’s ESL Ministry, to develop a curriculum that worked for their church.
Then they started looking for students — passing out brochures door to door and at local schools — and people started showing up.
On a Wednesday earlier this year, a bearded engineer who has been volunteering as a teacher for the program for the past two years, stands at a chalkboard and writes, “How do you spell that?” His two students, a young South American woman and a middle-aged African woman with a blue head wrap, repeat after him. Down the hall, seven students from seven different countries — Ecuador, Korea, China, Peru, India, Brazil, and Nepal — sit around a square table discussing their likes and preferences. This evening, there are close to 20 students in attendance. On busier nights, there can be as many as 40.
Eli explains that many of the students may have been prominent members of society in their countries of origin, but after arriving in the U.S. they may feel invisible.
“In our countries, we are smart, we have high degrees, we have our diplomas,” she says. “We know our language perfectly. So when we come, it’s kind of the opposite. Because we don’t know the language we have that feeling that we are not as smart as we used to be. … We feel like a kindergarten child.”
Sohana Shrestha, a 46-year-old woman from Nepal, said that when she first arrived in America, she didn’t have the ability to stick up for herself. If she went to the grocery store to buy something and the cashier rung up the wrong price on an item, she didn’t know how to challenge the mistake. So she would just pay the incorrect price.
“When you don’t know the language, you just accept,” Eli says.
But a mastery of English — or even a basic understanding — opens doors to confidence and empowerment. Knowing English means that someone can get a driver’s license or read food labels or, even, make a new friend. And perhaps that’s been one of the program’s more significant byproducts.
“The ministry provides a special environment where everyone has that person who relates to them,” says Firmino de Almeida, Eli’s husband and the current director of the ministry.
Suddenly, an isolated housewife meets another isolated housewife, and a friendship is born. They may not speak the same native language, but they can practice English together and bond over the many ways their lives look similar.
As for Eli, she says that these days she can do 99 percent of what she could do in Brazil.
“I’m alive!” she exclaims.
Lost Sheep Found
But to both Eli and Firmino, there is a deeper reason the ESL ministry makes a difference in so many lives.
Eli admits that before she came to the program, she wasn’t really connected to a church. Although both she and Firmino were raised with Christian teaching, she stopped attending church as a teenager. As a parent, she tried to instill her Christian beliefs into her sons without the influence of a church. But after attending the ESL program for a while, she began to sense the Holy Spirit moving in her life in a new way. “I feel like I was a lost sheep, and then I was rescued through this program. ESL helped to bring me closer to Christ.”
She began reading Christ-centered literature that was available at her class. Then she started reading the Bible. Eventually, she started attending South Dayton on a regular basis.
“Before, I thought I could have a Christian life without coming to church. I could have it my way,” she says. “I just realized it’s not what I thought.”
Meanwhile, Firmino had been attending a Catholic church, but as he saw the impact the ESL Ministry was having on his wife — both personally and spiritually — he decided to begin attending South Dayton as well. Soon, they both became members.
Two years ago, after Eli had been attending classes for several years, the church was looking for a new volunteer director to head the program, and they extended an invitation to Firmino. He accepted the role gladly.
“It was a good opportunity to give back what we got,” he explains.
Although not everyone responds to the Gospel as a result of the ministry, it does open doors. “It will be the quality English that draws them into our church,” Wolff says. “We will love them, and we will present the Gospel.”
Sohana says that she is a Hindu, but attending ESL class has given her an opportunity to learn about Christian culture, something that was completely new to her.
“Many people have not known about Christ,” Eli says. “This program introduces people to Christ.”