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.

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.

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…

That’s what love does. It figures out what you need and then gives that, unconditionally.

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.

Vienna Presbyterian Church What Love Makes Us Do cooking in vienna

Vienna Presbyterian Church What Love Makes Us Do people learning in viennaToday, 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 Presbyterian Church What Love Makes Us Do person making eye contact

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.

Vienna Presbyterian Church What Love Makes Us Do immigrant family in viennaOne 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.

Neda’s Story

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 What Love Makes Us Do teacher helping people in vienna community

 

VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
124 PARK STREET N.E. | VIENNA, VA 22180
PHONE: 703.938.9050 | FAX: 703.938.8264
VPCMAIN@VIENNAPRES.ORG | HTTPS://VIENNAPRES.OR

 

It’s easy to drive past all of the manicured lawns and pristine homes and miss the reality that an element of the population there is quietly struggling with life…

Hopelessness shows up on our doorstep in many forms.

When the Church becomes the hands and feet of Jesus, people are drawn to it.

Our hope… is that they’ll get to know us better and say ‘Just maybe this is where love is.’

Even in the most thriving of communities there are shadows, dark and menacing and, for the most part, completely hidden. It’s easy to drive past all of the manicured lawns and pristine homes and miss the reality that an element of the population there is quietly struggling with life on a daily basis, and many have lost hope that the tide will ever turn for them. And, not surprisingly, these hopeless ones are tucked into and among the wealthiest and most educated among us.

This conundrum presents an opportunity for the Church to do what it has always done best, if it only will. It is interesting that when the story of Jesus is told, we find that he was always on the lookout for the needy and the lost. When he came to town, he didn’t stay at the Four Seasons, though he certainly could have if he had chosen to. Instead, he stayed down by the pool of Siloam where the sick and the physically challenged lived. Why? Because He knew His unique place in the world and his calling and mission. “People who are not sick don’t need a doctor,” he said (my paraphrase).

The Great Physician showed up despite the dangers and the lack of creature comforts to do what only He could do. Healing and wholeness followed Him everywhere He went, and though we don’t know exactly what happened to these people after they met Him, the likelihood is their lives got markedly better going

Vienna Presbyterian Church Mitigating Hopelessness holding hand

forward. Hope has a way of doing that for us. Just a single ray can lift our hearts exponentially. I would guess that their story of meeting Jesus and the impact that He had on them became the central narrative of their lives going forward. How could they ever forget this man who touched their eyes so that they could see again? Or the healer who showed compassion and helped them walk, perhaps for the first time? The experience was unforgettable in every sense of the word. Hope showed up in human form, and lifted them. That experience can’t help but etch a lasting memory, one that gets into our DNA. An unbreakable relationship is forged that literally lasts forever.

Vienna Presbyterian Church Mitigating Hopelessness peopleWe in the church are commanded in the scriptures by Jesus himself to go and do likewise, to show up and do whatever we can do to lift the hopeless. But, here in the shiny and prosperous land we live in, how we will know or recognize the neediest among us?

First, we have to understand that hopelessness shows up on our doorstep in many forms. For the sizable population of immigrants in Vienna, Virginia, for example, there is the real fear of being deported. There is also the feeling among this segment of our population that their kids have somehow moved on, become westernized, learned English, and become separated from the family unit. That creates a lot of angst in a parent’s heart, especially if there is no one to guide you through it and mitigate the fear.

 There is also poverty. There is abuse and domestic violence. Each of these issues have cycles that become ingrained in the culture and in each individual that, without an intervention of some kind, become a way of life that can go on and on from one generation to the next with increasing damage, both collateral and otherwise. And, yes, this is all going on right down the street from you and I, no matter where we are.

As is always the case when we are faced with these issues, we essentially have “Hopelessness shows up on our doorstep in many forms. “ two choices: To drive by and look away, or to roll up our shirtsleeves and get to work in the trenches, near “the pools of Siloam” in our own towns and cities. Thankfully, the churches in Vienna have chosen the latter in their effort to “go and do likewise.” Vienna Presbyterian Church has made their building available to a weekly meeting of a local domestic violence support group. Volunteers are even cooking hot meals for the attendees, most of whom are in hiding and have lost much of their self-worth in their struggles at home. A meal for many people is just a meal. But for these folks, a meal is a timely reminder that they really do matter in the grand scheme of things, and they are loved no matter how unlovable they may feel at this point in their lives.

Vienna Presbyterian Church Mitigating Hopelessness

There are programs at Vienna Presbyterian to teach English to immigrants and help them better understand how to become citizens. They have had over 400 in their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs this year, and the church even provides professional child care services so that attending is easier.

Perhaps most surprising: Hunger is also an issue in Vienna. “Fifty families within a half mile of us do not have enough food on weekends,” says Sue Hamblen, Director of Missions at Vienna Presbyterian Church. “We’ve seen distended bellies and other signs of malnutrition.” Go ahead and ask yourself the question that any of us would ask: How is this possible in a land that has so much?

Vienna Presbyterian Church Mitigating Hopelessness hungry child

Thankfully, the churches in Vienna are joining forces with Vienna Presbyterian, catching the vision for what could be, and starting complementary programs of their own to effectively deal with all of these issues.

Vienna Presbyterian Church Mitigating Hopelessness love thy neighbor

All of this activity by the churches is sure to be transformational. It always has been. When the Church becomes the hands and feet of Jesus, people are drawn to it. “There is help here,” they say. It is unconditional and kind. There is safety there, and love. People who don’t even know you are sacrificing their time, money and resources to meet your need. No strings attached and no litmus test for your beliefs or status in the world. How can that kind of love not impact us?

When people in his day became aware that Jesus truly cared for them, that there were answers and healing wherever He went, an interesting thing happened; He didn’t have to look so hard for people who needed help. They started coming to Him. And, when they did, they all found what they needed, healing and the hope that better days were ahead.

The Outreach Team at Vienna Presbyterian Church is trying to replicate that success story, one day and one individual at a time. “Our hope,” says Ms. Hamblen, “Is that they’ll get to know us better and say ‘Just maybe this is where love is.”

 

 

 

VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
124 PARK STREET N.E.
VIENNA, VA 22180

PHONE: 703.938.9050
FAX: 703.938.8264
VPCMAIN@VIENNAPRES.ORG
HTTPS://VIENNAPRES.ORG

 

Love your neighbor. Feed the poor. Welcome the stranger. Protect the children. Follow me. Could it be any easier to grasp?Vienna Presbyterian Church

But the new normal for the church’s mission work these days looks very different.

This simple but unusual invitation is changing lives and forging bonds with a group of people who are finding out, perhaps for the first time, that the church cares deeply for them and wants to help.

The bottom line is that people in our community should feel welcome and needed.

If somehow, miraculously, Jesus appeared on the earth today and started walking around taking stock of the church he launched some two thousand years ago, what do you suppose he would think?

His work was simple. His message was direct and straightforward. Love your neighbor. Feed the poor. Welcome the stranger. Protect the children. Follow me. Could it be any easier to grasp? And, yet, somehow the message and the mission has become more complicated through the years and those original commands are, not surprisingly, forgotten in the muddle.

If Jesus walked around Vienna, Virginia these days, I think He would be encouraged by the quiet harbingers of a revolution, one not dissimilar to his own, and one that might serve as a model for churches in other communities across the land. Change is afoot, and the people leading that change are taking a different path, one that harks back to a New Testament version of Christianity that is already having a real impact outside of the four walls of the church and beyond. These churches fully understand their important role and their mission. And, there is much to do, no doubt.

hands in, New Normal Vienna Presbyterian Church

“The fact is, the major needs of communities have not changed in a very long time,” says Director of Missions at Vienna Presbyterian Church, Sue Hamblen. “Jobs, transportation, child care, and language.” She and her team, along with a number of churches in Vienna are stepping out and building systems and bridges to the community to deal with those pressing issues, and they are seeing tremendous results.

Hamblen is now in her seventh year in her role. She has been a member of the church for 31 years, but for 24 of those she worked informally, taking the occasional mission trip and working with the various children’s ministries as her own children grew up. At some point, she felt like she needed to do more, to take a much more active role in the Vienna Presbyterian Church and its work in the community. That’s another characteristic of revolutionaries – they don’t often come from the places we would expect them to come from. Sue was a parishioner, not a trained theologian or pastor. She was a concerned observer who decided to roll up her shirtsleeves and get involved. The message for the rest of us? We can all do something. We just have to decide that we are going to, and then get started.

Revolutionaries also need room to grow into the job. Hamblen says that she and her team has been given that by the senior leadership at the church. Their focus is outward, and they know that they will need to be open to new ideas and new tools and methods to accomplish their mission.

People giving, New Normal Vienna Presbyterian Church

THE NEW NORMAL

While Vienna Presbyterian Church has always been missional, the methods up to now have been more traditional, with money being raised to fund church trips to help out missionaries already at work in the field. But the new normal for the church’s mission work these days looks very different. It involves mentoring school kids, teaching the English language to immigrants and their children, housing the homeless inside of the church during winter, and tutoring students.

It’s much needed local mission work, addressing the issues of people in the neighborhoods around the church and beyond.

Each of these endeavors is an enormous undertaking. “Together, they are too much for any one church to do all by themselves,” says Hamblen. “We partner with other churches and local organizations to get the job done.” Sometimes those partnerships are forged with non-church affiliated groups who have already laid the tracks down for success and understand the landscape and the scope of the problem being addressed. This kind of church/non-church relationship is rare, but becoming less so. Most churches choose to work only within their denominational framework to solve problems or instigate change. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. “Why not partner with people who have already been there and done that?” says Hamblen. “That takes a great deal of trust, of course, but I believe that it has the best chance of leading to success without the steep learning curve associated with completely new and difficult endeavors like these.”

And, how is all of this outward focus being received by those in the church? After all, it’s new to them as well. One example speaks volumes. For the past three winters, Vienna Presbyterian church has invited the homeless to sleep inside of the church for two weeks as part of the hypothermia program. This simple but unusual invitation is changing lives and forging bonds with a group of peoplewho are finding out, perhaps for the first time, that the church cares deeply for them and wants to help. Even the most skeptical parishioner can see the impact
of this invitation and appreciate it.

“The bottom line is that people in our community should feel welcome and needed,” says Fred Wilson, member of First Baptist Church, Vienna, “And also to know that, regardless of their needs or circumstances, there are people in the community who are willing and able to help.”

Thankfully, the missions work in Vienna is just getting started and as it moves forward it is sure to continue venturing into places that churches don’t normally go. “We hosted a blue ribbon panel on sex trafficking last year and we prayed that 25 people would join us there,” says Hamblen. “We had 300 people show up.”

Vienna Presbyterian church is an official business partner with Cunningham Elementary School, and they are, in Hamblen’s words, “hyper-focused” on them and the needs of the kids there. “We started a mentoring program there last year,” She says, “and I’m not sure who had more fun- the mentees or the mentors.” This year, they’ll be introducing field trips and giving the children the opportunity to see the monuments around D.C.

The church has plans to expand a childcare ministry co-operative to help struggling parents who need occasional safe, supervised care for their children.

All of this important work had a simple beginning, according to Hamblen: “We started by listening.”

 

 

 

VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
124 PARK STREET N.E.
VIENNA, VA 22180

PHONE: 703.938.9050
FAX: 703.938.8264
VPCMAIN@VIENNAPRES.ORG
HTTPS://VIENNAPRES.ORG