Florida churches’ worldwide ESL ministry thrives due to COVID restrictions

OCALA, Fla. (BP) – Teaching others English as a second language is personal to Natalie Prim of Ocala. Her father was an immigrant who came to America in the late 1940’s and married her American mother. The daughter watched as he worked during the day to support his family and then spent hours at night learning to read and write English. His struggles were real, but so were the rewards as he finished high school, college and started a business.

“It was the American dream, and it came true,” said Prim, who now serves as the English as Second Language director at College Road Baptist Church in Ocala. “For me this is an opportunity to give back to God’s kingdom and to improve lives here.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak, the church’s weekly ESL classes were suspended in March 2020. But it wasn’t long until, using Zoom, the College Road teachers began logging in with their students who wanted to improve their English conversation skills.

“When 2020 began, 38 Florida churches offered English as a Second Language,” said Marc Johnston, Florida Baptists’ community ministries catalyst. “When the pandemic hit, many churches closed their doors and went online. Several ESL Ministries stopped meeting.  All of the ministries began to look at alternative ways to teach and looked at various virtual platforms.”

During the summer of 2020, the state convention offered training sessions by Zoom on how to conduct ESL on a virtual platform.  And as ESL ministries went online, a trend became apparent. Students from across the globe began registering for the classes.

“The churches realized very quickly that God had given them a world-wide ministry,” Johnston said.

According to Prim, 20 percent of the ESL registrations were coming from outside Ocala — including international registrations from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain and Brazil. Students came from other states and outside of the Ocala region.

Susan Russo, director of ESL & citizenship ministry for Jacksonville’s Southside Baptist Church, experienced the same phenomena. When the pandemic struck, realizing not everyone had access to a computer, she sought to create an interactive classroom that could be accessed via smartphones. Utilizing VEDAMO, an interactive web conferencing tool for educators, she created a multilevel approach incorporating YouTube videos, listening classes, the “Jesus” film and other teaching aids.

As students told friends and family in their home countries, they began reaching people beyond Jacksonville. Starting with 55 learners, at one point 85 persons across the globe were on the site, including learners from Brazil, Thailand and Myanmar.  Nationally they began reaching students from Texas and other places in Florida.

They found the world was waiting at the end of their phone.

During each session, Russo asks for prayer requests and strikes up spiritual conversations.

“I was first concerned it wouldn’t be as personal as teaching in person,” Russo noted. “But connecting over the phone is even more personal and intimate as we pray together.”

Now that summer break is taking place with the ESL sessions, Prim has discovered that most students are beginners. She stresses “the need for ESL instruction for beginners to continue and just how important ESL is as an available resource to students.”

Among the program’s success stories is Luisa Lopez, who came to Ocala in 2017 from Colombia and started attending classes.  She had some previous English-speaking training but needed practice.

“Luisa has grown in her knowledge of conversation, which has propelled her to an excellent position as a computer technician,” explained Prim.  “Luisa put the time and effort into learning English, and she did her homework.  Along with Luisa’s conversation skills are her technology skills.”

This summer Lopez will start college classes.

“The end result is a winning combination of talent,” Prim said. “Luisa is still a faithful student —and one of the best examples I have seen.”

While the classes at College Road will resume in September, they plan to continue Zoom instruction in the advanced class, and hope to make it available for the other levels pending training and technology requirements.

“The world continues to come to Florida,” said Johnston, the state convention’s community ministries catalyst. “ESL continues to be a great way to build relationships with internationals, help our new friends with communication skills and share the gospel.  Now, thanks to the pandemic, our churches can go to the world on a weekly basis through virtual platforms teaching ESL.”

This article was written by Barbara Denman of the Florida Baptist Convention. It was published on baptistpress.com.

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