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Teaching English in Amarillo

AG outreach helps refugees learn the language — and the gospel.

Though José López worked as a cook and custodian for a quarter-century in Amarillo, Texas, he’d never learned English. Then a flier about free classes through AG U.S. missionaries Steve and Sheri Woodward’s International Learning Center piqued his interest.

While the Mexico native knew that English would help him better provide for his family, López also had a deep emotional need: his wife suffered from cancer. As her full-time caregiver, López needed respite somewhere outside his house.

Pastor Eliazard shepherded an Assemblies of God congregation of 2,000 in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, an African nation long beset by conflict between militia groups against each other and the government. He and his flock fled into a refugee camp in neighboring Burundi, but the violence followed. Some 200 members of the church died in a massacre.

Resettlement services partnering with the U.N. placed the pastor and dozens from his church in Amarillo. And they all needed to learn English.

Then there was “John,” a secret follower of Christ discovered by Iran’s religion police and imprisoned. He escaped, fled with his wife to a Far East country, and eventually relocated to a west Texas community. The couple, who needed to improve their English, contacted the Woodwards.

Resettlement groups have placed an array of ethnicities in Amarillo, a city of 200,000 in the Texas Panhandle. Among them are Somalis, Burmese, and Iraqis. They all need help as they learn a new way of life in a foreign society, and that includes a new language.

“The need is huge around us,” says Woodward, who is an Intercultural Ministries missionary.

It’s a need that the area community college can’t meet alone. That’s in part why nine years ago the Woodwards founded the learning center. Today, the center’s 10 volunteer teachers educate 120 students. High demand has led area churches to offer English as second language classes as well, he says. The community college often refers its overflow to the AG program. The goals are simple.

“We want to provide (students) with a good quality English class, but more than that, we want to share the gospel,” Woodward says. To that end, each two-hour class includes a 10-minute devotional. The network provides other assistance such as mentoring, helping with driver’s licenses, and connecting workers with employment and legal services.

Beyond that, Woodward hopes churches will be planted as a result of the classes.

As refugees from far-flung countries seek to form their own communities once in the U.S., Woodward is seeing those dreams realized. John and his wife from Iran now speak English well enough to teach language classes themselves.

An Amarillo Congolese church planted by Eliazard includes other Congolese who had been resettled in other U.S. cities. The church now occupies its own building.

And while López is working hard to improve his English, he’s come to faith in Christ. His wife’s condition has greatly improved, according to López’s teacher, Margie Gonzales, She is associate pastor of Fairview Assembly of God and now offers classes at the church. Gonzales and others prayed for López’s wife.

“He’s learned that her improvement was the result of answered prayer,” says Gonzales, who plans to launch more ESL classes at Fairview in January, including one Wednesday nights that offers child care.

“I liken (ESL classes) to the way Jesus began His ministry,” Gonzales says. “He provided for the needs of the people, then moved to the spiritual. Now in this city we have a major influx of refugees in desperate need of English to get jobs.”

Woodward says the outreach centers around the local church. He offers workshops on teaching ESL to others to meet the needs that are growing as people of the world come to the United States.

“There’s such a need and our country is so diverse,” Woodward says. “Ministry flows through relationships. There are people from around the world in our own backyards. We don’t want to miss those opportunities.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.