Volunteers serving The Shepherd’s Market—a client choice food pantry at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge—began to notice soon after opening their doors in 2012 that a significant number of clients were Spanish-speaking.
Actually, we estimate that 25 percent of the people currently coming in for help are non-English speaking. We currently serve 420 families per month,” said Theresa Sandifer, director of Shepherd’s Market and a member of St. John’s UMC. “We started to recruit volunteers for the pantry that were bilingual, especially to help out in the intake process when people would first come to ask for help.”
Food pantry organizers also started putting bilingual labels on the shelves. “For example, we would put the Spanish word for corn next to the English word ‘corn.’ The labels seemed to help some, but we were still resorting to a lot of pointing,” said Sandifer, who added that pantry workers have also downloaded language apps on their mobile phones to help with translation.
In addition to having bilingual volunteers helping with client intake, the pantry has developed application forms and promotional flyers in both Spanish and English. “The inability to speak English can present a huge barrier for our clients, whom we wish to serve with the utmost of respect and dignity. By our making an effort to communicate more effectively, we let them know that how they feel is important to St. John’s. This approach goes a long way in giving our pantry a community kind of feel,” said Sandifer.
Not only did the volunteers begin to learn more about the Spanish language, organizers soon realized that helping their clients learn more about English could help them in their visits to the pantry–and more importantly, in their everyday lives.
So, church volunteers began to offer free English as a Second Language classes to anyone who wanted them.
Initially, the ESL classes were offered at the church. “Teegie Hamilton really spearheaded this project,” said Carol Young, who works with Hamilton to teach the classes. “At first, we would teach at the church on Tuesday mornings at the same time that The Shepherd’s Market was open for business. The market is also open on Monday evening and Thursday morning,” said Young, a retired English teacher.
Soon, however, the lessons “morphed” into a broader outreach. Young and Hamilton, a retired speech therapist, began to offer the classes on Tuesday mornings from 9:30-10:30 a.m. at the Gardere Christian School, located very near St. John’s UMC. “There are many Spanish-speaking students at the school. We currently have 14 or 15 names on our student roster, and those coming are largely parents of the Gardere school students,” said Young, who added that church member Paula Cobb, a certified ESL instructor, also offers the classes on Thursday evenings at the church.
“Many of the women I teach have small children. One of their main concerns is knowing enough about English grammar and vocabulary to be able to speak to their children’s teachers and doctors,” said Cobb.
Moving to the school eliminated the challenge for students of getting to the church, which was a car drive away. “Most of these families are within walking distance to school, so that made getting to us much easier,” she added.
The students enter the program at many different levels of fluency. “Some have been in Baton Rouge for years, and have acquired some familiarity with the English language. Some are starting from the beginning, and need to develop basic communication skills. As instructors, we try to make it fun for the students,” said Young.
Rev. Jay Hogewood, pastor of St. John’s UMC, is inspired by the efforts of church members who are spearheading these ministries. “Without the hard working volunteers, people who are willing to extend themselves and reach beyond their ‘comfort zones,’ this effort would never have risen. I am consistently amazed and overjoyed that so many in our congregation are willing to share their gifts and graces so generously.”
Teaching ESL classes has proven to be “exciting” for Young. “In many ways, it has enhanced my faith. Often with ministry, you start where you are, and it grows from there. It is so interesting to me how this program evolved, starting with the church’s involvement in the food pantry and expanding into this wonderful outreach. Offering these classes affords St. John’s another connection to the community—the ESL outreach is a true reflection of the community surrounding and served by our church.”
Rev. Hogewood added, “As in the miracle of Pentecost when the Church was birthed, this mission exemplifies the Holy Spirit’s work in a culture often skeptical, or even downright scared, of those who speak different languages. I count it as a modern parable of God’s ongoing effort to ‘speak the language’ of God’s created ones. This mission - to share in learning living languages - reminds me that the Holy Spirit always has a fresh word for the Church but also for the culture in which we work and play.”