This reflective essay was written by one of our ESL teachers at World Relief Chicago. We hope her words bless you as much as they bless us.
World Relief Chicago has three levels of English classes. Our classes consist of immigrants from our neighborhood community and the refugees we resettle through our agency. As the instructor of one of our classes, I’ve grown accustomed to my front row seat to the life, growth, and depth of our students. Day in and out we practice the mantras of “Mistakes are good, they help us learn!” and “Never be afraid to ask a question!” We practice pronunciation. The stress goes on the wrong syllable. We write the weekly vocabulary on our whiteboard. The first word is misspelled. We practice questions of who, what, when, and where so we can apply these to “small-talk” conversations. Our students sit in conversation groups and reveal their differences, their similarities, their quirks, their fears, and their greatest joys. Those of us who work day in and out in this context forget that, for many, these stories are not a given. Its important to reflect on what God is doing in this unique setting through and beyond the language we share.
One of the most interesting things I’ve observed in my time as an ESL teacher is the direct, but often forgotten, correlation between language and restoration that exists in full-form inside World Relief’s classrooms. Here, the term restoration is referred to as rebirth found in relational and cultural forgiveness, the discoveries and acknowledgements of one’s abilities, and the eagerness to employ skills both newfound and those waiting to be uncovered.
Restoration, in the ESL classroom, is putting back together the pieces that are left in the wake of hardship and seeing the potential for new ones. Restoration is grief in all that’s been lost and hope for all that lies beyond the grasp. Restoration is done through and in relationships and through and in language. English isn’t the key, but attempting to share who you are, who you have been, and who you would like to become provides an outlet, a means forward.
Our students discover a relationship with language and study. Some of our students become acquainted with an academic setting for the first time. Here our students find relationship sitting shoulder to shoulder with each other’s opposing worldviews. They learn to respect and search for the similarities in each other. They work to see the person before the conflict, the human being before the political, religious, or cultural differences.
Our students come face to face with a relational God. On Friday mornings, students rise earlier than normal to gather before school for a Bible study. They read a section of the gospels or Psalms and share stories of how God has gotten them through, how he’s still getting them through. Those same students encounter God when they share those insights in conversation groups in class. They encounter God when vocabulary words like valuable and worthy and creative appear in a daily text. Why does a person have value? Who makes us creative? Why are you worthy? I pose the questions and wait for the critical thinking and the answers. In open discussion, we get to the bottom of God’s worth in us, his creativity in mankind. Maybe, I hope, these conversations put a spotlight on the often over-looked Imago Dei inside each of us.
I think of the stories I’ve heard – words forming up out of the groundwork of language to create meaning to the experience of life.
I think of the woman who lived under abuse, but strove to make it to class every day. “Teacher, this is my second home. This is my family,” she says, “I feel safe here. I’m not afraid. Now, little by little I feel strong. I’m not cry all the time anymore.”
I think of the married couple who others refer to as “Mama” and “Papa” because of their consistent, parental presence in the class. Every person gets a chocolate bar on their birthday, but our class “Mama” got a student initiated and organized surprise party. Students bought roses, balloons, cakes, and streamers for the event.
I think of the concern a body of students shares for another student who has been separated from his family. As he works to reunify his family, by bringing them to the United States, his classmates bring him groceries and call him when he doesn’t come to class. One day he sat back, looked around, and said, “Here I am alone, but I am not alone, because I have my family in here.”
I think about the tears often shed, or bravely held back, during our family and friends unit. The majority of people have lost family and friends. As we draw and label our family trees, the language and the community gives students space to write, to talk, and to speak. Their drawings and narrations become a kind of memorial to those lost loved ones.
I think of the different religions, political affiliations, cultures, and worldviews existing in one small space. It baffles me that this community even functions.
The fact remains; this is still a sixteen hour a week English class. Pain developed over the years will run deep, will pour over, will keep these students in cyclical patterns of frustration and fear. But, this is a start. Every act of restoration needs a beginning.