What Love Makes Us Do
Vienna Presbyterian Church is Teaching English and Changing Lives
Not far from the epicenter of the immigration debate in Washington, DC is a church who, rather than parsing the issues and choosing sides, is effectively dealing with what is. For the past quarter century, Vienna Presbyterian Church has offered ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes to the multitude of immigrants in the area who have come to America to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
Though it is easy to paint with a broad brush when writing a headline, or making a political point about immigrants, the fact is, these are people. Each has his or her own unique story and reasons for being here. Oftentimes they have left high level positions in their home countries (Doctors, Business Execs, etc.) to come to this country and take their chances. Most often, they start at the bottom of the economic rung when they arrive here, working in restaurants or doing domestic chores of one kind or another.
In 1992, several members of Vienna Presbyterian Church figured out that as long as there was a language barrier there would be no advancement, no matter how talented or smart the individual might be. On a strictly voluntary basis, they launched what has become a remarkable ESOL program, one that is changing the lives of immigrants in their community in a big way.
Today, there are 23 classes offered, and 78 teachers. Over 100 people volunteer to teach 440 students from 60 countries. Teachers give 3 hours a week of their time for 31 weeks; no small commitment. There are teachers, substitute teachers, and helpers. All fully understand the importance of the work they are doing in the lives of those they serve. They get to see the progress, however faltering and difficult it may be at times, and they see the joy on the faces of the ESOL students as they begin to converse in English with each other.
It takes a brave soul to leave everything they know, and any success they may have achieved, and come to a strange land and start over. Learning English is just one part of an already enormous and daunting challenge, but it too, is a sizable one.
Add to this the real problem of transiency and you have a challenge for the ages. Immigrants sometimes go back to their home countries for a while. When they return to the ESOL class after a few months or more, they don’t pick right up where they left off. They have to get back up to speed again, an oftentimes frustrating process. And, yet they keep coming back and they keep on working on it. They too, know the importance of this, and they are grateful for a program that gives them an opportunity to succeed.
“They’re my heroes,” says Vienna Presbyterian’s ESOL Manager, Deb Rymer. “I have such respect and admiration for them.” Deb has been the part-time Program Manager for four years now, and is in charge of strategic direction, administration, and operations. She began her work with the program as a volunteer several years ago and in her own words “fell in love” with the students and seeing their progress week to week. That love affair turned into a full time mission.
That’s not surprising. Love is, or should be, at the heart of all the things a church does. Love opens our eyes to what’s really going on in our communities, and it drives us to do something about those issues we think (with God’s help) we can fix. When that happens, it stops being about us, and our organization, and it becomes about them. That’s when transformational change happens for both the servants and those they serve.
Vienna, Virginia might be the last place that you’d think to go to look for people in need. It is an upscale community with pristine homes and manicured lawns and plenty of wealthy and the well to do. It’s a prospering place, and yet in that same seemingly bulletproof community there are real and pressing issueshunger, drugs, and human trafficking, to name a few. Many might be surprised to hear this news about this seemingly idyllic area that at first glance appears to be care and need free. But Vienna is not alone. All across this land, there are cities and towns and bergs just like it who have the same issues lurking in the shadows, raising questions that love requires us to answer.
Vienna Presbyterian Church What Love Makes Us Do
Once upon a time a few years ago there was a fad of sorts, a wearable bracelet that had the letters WWJD etched into it so that it was easily visible. The “ Love is, or should be, at the heart of all the things a church does. Love opens our eyes to what’s really going on in our communities, and it drives us to do something about those issues… “ letters were shorthand for a powerful and pressing question that we all have to answer: What would Jesus do?
So, what would Jesus do? The answer is crystal clear. In fact, he has already set a precedent that is easy to see, but sometimes difficult to follow because of the commitment it requires. Wherever He went, he found people who couldn’t get help anywhere else and then He did what only He could do. The blind, the sick, the lame, they all knew there was healing there where He was and if they could just get there, or if He would just pass by, everything would be OK.
And, it was OK. That’s what love does. It figures out what you need and then gives that, unconditionally.
One of the first events in the life of the early Church in the book of Acts also sets a precedent. When the Holy Spirit began to move in the newly born church, all of those people began to hear each other in their own language. For a time, there were no language barriers at all. They were taken down so that the lives that needed to be changed there could be changed with no impediments. And, when that happened, the world changed for the better.
That’s happening again in Vienna, Virginia, thanks to a dedicated group of individuals who are showing up and giving their time and energy to strangers in need. They are doing what Jesus would do, one life, one success story at a time. And, not surprisingly, the world is being changed all over again.
When I began the long dark road of migrating to America, I had a beautiful precious baby in my belly. My partner had to stay back home with his family because his father was on his death bed and, in fact, died the day after I left for America on September of 2008. When I arrived here, I hardly spoke a word of English. I was unfamiliar with the culture and the people. I did not even understand the lines on the roads that guided the traffic. I had a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in IRAN, but yet I felt lost in the grocery store, doing something as mundane as buying cheese.
Everything was so different from what I was familiar with. Thankfully, after three months, a light appeared at the end of the bridge. I was introduced to the VPC. I met the director (Doris), she was so supportive. She hugged me and invited me to stay for the Christmas party. She was so genuine and real that I felt relieved and supported and it made me cry. Not tears of sadness, but tears of relief. This was my first independent contact with the community in the states. I felt so lucky and I started learning English.
At Vienna Presbyterian I did not just learn a language at the ELS program. I learned a new lifestyle, a new culture and a new way of living life. I learned the skills I needed to cope with my day to day life independently. As time passed with the support of the church I could stand up on my own feet and start my life again.
Immigration is one of hardest steps in any individual’s life. Some research shows approximately one million people are granted lawful permanent residence in the US each year. An immigrant puts all his family, friends, possessions and all they are familiar with in the rearview mirror, and with one or two suitcases, sets out to a new world that most often they know nothing about.
I was very lucky because from the beginning I was exposed to beautiful and loving environment of the ESL program in the Vienna Presbyterian Church. Learning English in the Vienna Presbyterian church ESL program did not just teach me English, it affected my life in many other positive ways. My selfconfidence improved, I learned to be more independent and it lifted my spirits.
VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
124 PARK STREET N.E. | VIENNA, VA 22180
PHONE: 703.938.9050 | FAX: 703.938.8264
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