Teaching English Like a Servant

Tyler C. Detrick

Language barriers are awkward. As the pastor of a church with an English as a Second Language (ESL) Ministry, I’m familiar with the difficulty of speaking with people who don’t know my native language. Almost every week, someone knocks on the front doors to our church and greets me with words I don’t understand: “Disculpe, ¿cuándo son sus clases de inglés?”

This time, the Hispanic gentleman asking the question is pointing to our sign, which promotes free English classes. I know he’s speaking Spanish because I studied Spanish in high school. I can’t talk with him, though, because I didn’t pay much attention in high school Spanish. (I thought pastors only needed to know Greek and Hebrew?)

I pull out my iPhone, fumble to my “Google Translate” app, and start speaking in awkwardly loud English: “Hello, my name is Pastor Tyler. It’s nice to meet you! We would love for you to come to our English lessons here at the church on Tuesday evenings. Classes begin at 6:45 p.m. They are free—no cost! There are many people there who speak Spanish. They are glad to help you learn English.”

My phone quickly starts to translate this into Spanish. Smiling, the man nods. As I watch him walk away, I pray that he comes to our classes. I pray that he receives a warm welcome. I especially pray that he hears the gospel and delights in the Savior.

An ESL Ministry for Dayton

Light of the Nations OPC has invested in language ministry since it began. Years before the congregation had chosen its name or location, its overseeing elders identified ESL as a strategy for gospel outreach.

Dayton, Ohio, is an immigrant-friendly city. The city boasts East Third Street as a Welcome Dayton Corridor, a place where refugees can thrive. Our church leadership started thinking: What if our church leads the way in reaching out to these immigrants? What if we teach them English and tell them the good news of Jesus? What if we plant our church along the Welcome Dayton Corridor and become a light for the gospel to unsettled refugees? What if Dayton becomes known for Christ’s warm welcome to sinners who repent and believe the gospel? This dream excited the congregation. It seemed like a natural way to show hospitality to our neighbors, extend the reach of the gospel, and express our gratitude to the Savior through intentional acts of service in his name.

In another sense, our ESL vision borrowed from the early church. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reversed the language confusion of Babel by causing the Jews in Jerusalem “to speak in other tongues. . . . And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:4–5). There is something particularly appropriate about Christians, indwelled with the Spirit of Pentecost, leading the way in overcoming language barriers so that the gospel can be understood and believed. As language-learners come to understand and embrace the gospel, they find fellowship with Christ and his church. This is where refugees find true rest.

The Vision Takes Shape

Over time this vision took shape. In 2021, our church purchased a building on East Third Street in the center of the Welcome Dayton Corridor. We put up a sign inviting people to attend our upcoming ESL classes and notified the city that we were welcoming students. We prayed for the Lord to open doors for the gospel. In preparation for the classes, volunteer teachers from our church joined Pastor Brad Peppo in receiving ESL training through the PCA’s Mission to North America. Then it was time for classes to begin.

On the first day of class, zero students were present. The next few weeks there were three. Then there were seven, then eleven, then twenty. Over three years, more than two hundred different people have come to our church for English classes. We have welcomed students from various countries, including China, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Ukraine.

On a typical Tuesday evening, students enter our church’s front doors and ascend to our multi-purpose room. New students take a quick placement quiz to determine whether they should join the beginner, intermediate, or advanced class. The classes begin, and laughter spills into the hallway as students chuckle at their own grammar mistakes or the funny way their teacher sounds in a foreign language.

After an hour or so, the classes break and join together in the main room for a Bible lesson. The good news about Jesus Christ is clearly proclaimed in our listeners’ native languages. The leader invites everyone to attend our church where they can hear more about God’s salvation. Then classes resume, and students finish off the night learning how English verbs work or how to order a hamburger from an American restaurant menu.

Volunteers for the Work

Of course, this ministry would not be possible without a team of volunteers who have committed themselves to this work out of love for the Lord. Pastor Peppo, Light of the Nations’ church planter, was instrumental in forming the vision for an ESL program in downtown Dayton. After the congregation particularized, Peppo remained as its evangelist. In this outward-facing role, he kickstarted the ESL program. He battled the August wind which kept tearing our ESL sign from its posts. One summer, he studied Spanish intensively in Costa Rica so that he could communicate on a more personal level with our Spanish students.

Others quickly joined him. One of Light of the Nations’ deacons, Paul Downs, has faithfully served as a teacher from the very beginning. Anna Jackson is a member of Covenant OPC in Vandalia, Ohio, but she has donated her time and talents this season to teach our students. Susannah Tobias also attends another church, but she has joined in our ESL efforts. Aaron and Julie Salazar, along with their three kids, staff a free nursery for students with children.

Recently, Aaron took over for Peppo as the ESL director. Aaron speaks Spanish fluently as a second language and regularly teaches the Bible lessons in Spanish. There are many others who have served faithfully, and I am a very proud pastor when I think of each of them!

Teaching English Like a Servant

I asked these workers about their involvement in the ESL ministry. What stands out?

One common theme was the servant role one must take on to be part of this kind of effort: Aaron Salazar stressed that there is no worldly glory to be found in language instruction: “The students attending on Tuesday nights aren’t rich or famous. They aren’t important by worldly estimation. Many of them have no status in our country. These are the ones we serve.” Indeed, ESL ministry is not glamorous or in the spotlight. It’s sometimes clumsy and often awkward—a lot like washing feet.

Our ESL volunteers also noted that the sporadic nature of attendance can make the work difficult. Some Tuesdays there are thirty students or more present, and then a week later the numbers shrink to six or seven. Many of the students have irregular living and working situations, so it’s hard to predict who will come to class and with what kind of regularity. Teachers must be able to accommodate regular attenders as well as students who have missed months of lessons. Aaron had something to say about this: “Their lives are confusing and unpredictable. This is exactly why we need to be consistent in the way we handle ESL. We need to be here and ready to teach every Tuesday, so that we can reflect God’s consistency.” Another volunteer agreed: “If even one person shows up, we need to be here and ready to serve with joy.”

Yet another challenging aspect of ESL is the long-term nature of the work. ESL is a seed-sowing kind of ministry because it often takes a long time to see what kind of fruit the Lord will produce through our efforts. In some ways, our church is already seeing the fruit of an ESL ministry. Many Spanish-speaking Christians have joined our church, in part because they feel welcomed by our willingness to work through language barriers. In other ways, however, we wait for more fruit. Our church longs to see people from the ESL ministry come to worship, hear the gospel, and profess faith in Christ. We long to be able to speak to these students with greater clarity about the gospel. Yet these things take time. We have had visitors worship in our church regularly in the past, and some students have evidenced faith in Christ. But thus far we have not seen a student commit to fellowship in our congregation.

Reflecting on this aspect of ESL ministry, Aaron adds, “We may not see the visible results we’re hoping for this side of the grave. I don’t know what all this effort will turn into. All I know is that I must be faithful.”

Light of the Nations is grateful to the Lord for the opportunity to be faithful in this ministry. We know that we are not alone, as there are many gospel-preaching churches pursuing similar ESL programs in order to proclaim the gospel into the world. We pray that our story encourages these churches to remain faithful in their outreach efforts. We hope that the Lord opens more doors for the church to be a light for Christ in this world.

Who knows? Perhaps a church will kickstart a Spanish as a Second Language (SSL) ministry to help pastors who didn’t pay attention during high school Spanish class.

The author is pastor of Light of the Nations OPC in Dayton, Ohio. New Horizons, July 2024.

New Horizons: July 2024

Teaching English Like a Servant

Also in this issue

Developing Relationships Through ESL

ESL Resources from Mission to North America

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