ESL ministry sowing gospel seeds at Ky. Baptist church

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ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – A ministry teaching English to internationals is experiencing success at a Kentucky Baptist church in northeastern Kentucky.


The English as a Second Language ministry, referred to as ESL, started four years ago at Unity Baptist Church with several church members who built relationships with some Hispanic women in the Ashland community.

Wanda Riddle, a Unity member and the Greenup Association of Baptists associational director for WMU, took advantage of a training weekend sponsored by the Kentucky Baptist Convention where participants received instruction on how to teach English to internationals. Several church members attended with her and the training program opened the door for more teachers to become involved, Riddle said. It wasn’t long before they knew God was in it.


“God started bringing all these opportunities to us,” Riddle said.


Deidre Patton, one of the program coordinators, was getting her nails done in a local salon and was talking to one of the Cambodian technicians when she disclosed she was a teacher.

“He just lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Patton. “I want English,” the young man exclaimed before asking Patton if she could teach him.


Though it was difficult to communicate with the language barrier, Patton told him about the ESL ministry at Unity Baptist and gave him information about the church. She also informed the salon owner about the English classes. “The harvest was ready with all of these nail techs who needed English and wanted it desperately,” Patton said.


Ministry leaders developed a flyer for strategic distribution and word began to spread. Debbie Cole, another of the program coordinators, said: “We hit all the businesses in town that had internationals who might want to expand their English skills.”


Patton said that one woman cried at receiving the information.  “For me? Free English for me?” she asked Patton.


More students began to attend the classes, prompting teachers to develop an assessment for the English level of students and adding a citizenship preparation course. One student obtained citizenship in late 2019 and several church members traveled to Lexington to watch her naturalization ceremony.


“Our ESL ministry is meeting a significant need since there are no other ESL programs, ESL ministries, or church-based ministries targeting internationals that we know of,” said Jeremy Couture, the senior pastor of Unity Baptist Church. In his doctoral research, Couture found that while Hispanic, Asian, and other internationals make up a minor percentage surrounding the church, it is the primary demographic group demonstrating consistent growth.


As a result of the ESL ministry “we are already seeing gospel-focused relationships forming and a greater appreciation for those in our community that are in need,” Couture said.


Though the ministry, which is averaging about a dozen students every week, has experienced success and continues to grow, it still faces challenges. Riddle, Patton and Cole all acknowledged language is a barrier to communicating the gospel.


“We’re so used to everyone knowing the Bible, so we had this idea that you should be able to witness to people and they get saved,” Riddle said. But for many, the concepts of scripture are completely foreign, she said.


“They don’t have any background with God or Jesus,” added Cole.


Though the ministry teaches a Bible story at the end of every class, cultural barriers to understanding persist.


Building relationships and loving on the students is an important aspect of the ESL program, and teachers involved in the ministry recognize that it may take several years for these men and women to grow into a relationship with Christ.


“It’s not a failure that they don’t get saved the first year in your program,” Riddle said. “We have to trust that even if we don’t see the results, we’re planting seeds that God will use because it’s His ministry.”

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