By Rev. Dr. Katie Hays
Several years ago, Northwest Christian Church (DOC) in Arlington, Texas, began a small, all-volunteer program to teach English to adult learners. The neighborhood around the church was changing, with a healthy influx of immigrants from mostly Spanish-speaking places, and the response was very positive. Members of the church volunteered to teach English using a picture-based curriculum that doesn't require the teacher to know the student's first language. It's not easy, but it's possible.
Soon the ministry began to outgrow the congregation's ability to fund and fuel it with volunteers. In 2010, the Northwest Arlington ESL Center gained its own 501c3 status and formed an ecumenical, interfaith Board of Directors. In 2012 the Center enrolled 150 students, with the fastest growing enrollment segment coming from our Arabic-speaking neighbors. The church still hosts the Center without any payment for rent or utilities, and is the largest consistent donor of operating funds. Even better, many church members volunteer actively as teachers, tutors, administrators, and more. The program is known to be non-sectarian (and therefore "safe" for our Muslim neighbors to join in) and kid-friendly (with free daycare for preschoolers during our daytime sessions). A summertime "prayer exchange" pairs church members with students who pledge to pray for each other through the summer break -- Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and "others" praying earnestly for each other! Imagine that.
The Center draws on community connections to strengthen the program day by day. Partnerships with local universities, grants from area non-profits, and connections to nearby faith communities are all helping NWA ESL Center remain one of the strongest community programs around.
Typical of Disciples, we don't all agree about why the Center fits nicely with our theology or our politics. Some church members insist that "English only" is a necessity for successful economy. Others want to learn as much as possible about our neighbors' life experiences and appreciate the diversity of our new community. But we all agree that extending God's welcome to our neighbors reflects our own experience of God's gracious welcome.
To learn more about the Northwest Arlington ESL Center, or the church that hosts it, check out www.northwestcc.com.