By Kim Wyatt
CBF Field Personnel and Co-Founder of Welcome House Community Network
Of all the things I thought I might do, teaching English to students using an online platform was not one of them. I never imagined teachers and students gathered daily for an hour or so staring into a phone. My world and mission have been transformed forever.
With the pandemic’s arrival our ministry came to an abrupt halt the 12th of March. Before that day we were providing English as a Second Language (ESL), pre-school readiness, after school homework helps and other services in five apartment communities in the Raleigh-area. For many refugee and immigrant neighbors, these neighborhoods are their first homes when they arrive in the United States. They are teaming with culture and peace. They mark the date that children were able to play outside again and the first days of a bright and hopeful future. But we were forced to leave because of the Coronavirus.
Despite having to leave these communities, they remain the places where our friends live.
All the opportunities to be the presence of Christ and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves still exist there.
Our refugee agency partners called Mid-March. They wanted to brainstorm ways that we might be able to continue providing services. We all realized what laid ahead wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. We needed to maintain a lifeline to these vulnerable neighbors. And we realized what was always true. It was right in front of us. There was a way. It wasn’t our way, but it was the way all of our refugee and immigrant friends knew very well.
I originally put WhatsApp on my phone so I could maintain contact with my family when traveling outside the US. For our refugee friends it was the platform they used for the very same reason and one that did not require an expensive phone plan. That was a “lightbulb” moment for us! That simple, readily available phone app would be the way for us to stay connected and teach English as a Second Language while we were physically separated.
WhatsApp is nothing new for our refugee and immigrant students. They use it all the time to connect with each other and their families around the world. But for us and our volunteers, well, we’d be on a huge learning curve.
In those early weeks, some of our usual ESL teachers dropped out. It was just too much to learn with all the stress of the pandemic and other things happening all at once. But for some, and many more new volunteers, it was something they were ready to try. I opened the app and started learning. Soon we had a training and orientation session. Our volunteer teachers followed us into this new frontier of mission.
We may be using this new method, but we are learning as we go. Dropped calls, faces that are too close to the screen, the volume too low, the volume too high, tops of heads, no heads, silence and belly laughs, children crying and more, oh the adventures of teaching never cease to amaze me. Not sure some days who learned more, the teachers or the students. Most everyone involved has hung in there.
The ESL classes are gaining traction, through word of mouth, friends of friends and family are wanting to volunteer to teach and asking to enroll as students. Because the classes are happening online and at a time that is convenient for the teacher and his/her students, classes are happening in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening and on weekends. Volunteers from across the country: the Midwest, Northeast and South have joined us. Students from Raleigh and other surrounding cities and towns are taking classes. It is truly amazing what can be done when you remove time and distance from the classes. Just imagine the ways and opportunities we might discover when we don’t waste a crisis but rather embrace with bold faith the God who loves the whole world.
This new teaching platform seems to lend itself to more personal conversations too. It seems to me that my students, many refugee or immigrant moms, are more comfortable learning and sharing personal things from the safety of their homes than in the classrooms we used until mid-March.
Only four phones maximum can get on the line for each class so the classes are more intimate. Some classes have multiple family members using one phone so typically a class has between 1-6 students. Often, children of all ages also want to participate. For me that means that I usually have a preschool book handy for the 1-2 minutes that the younger children fancy the class. Their parents enjoy the stories too. It’s intimate, precious and sacred.
So here we are months into the pandemic. Our usual 10 weekly face-to-face classes have turned into more than 35 virtual classes a week.
The classes aren’t just about learning English. They are personal links where we can check in on one another. Classes where we not only talk about our families, but we get to see them.During this time of distance teaching, we are often included in special family celebrations. The birth of babies, virtual baby showers and graduations; we share each other’s joys and fears. We pray for one another and for family members who are in the hospital and for those who have died.
It seems like we’ve been doing this virtual teaching for an eternity and yet it has only been a few months. We are early in this journey of learning how to be community all over again. I feel that in many ways this crisis has brought us closer to one another. It has opened our hearts and minds to realities we share. This posture of being the presence of Christ is powerful and intimate. We have been invited into each other’s homes and lives through tiny phone screens.
What we are seeing is beautiful. What we are hearing is transformative. Though we are apart, we are living a new life together. One we never imagined just weeks ago.
For me, I don’t want to ever go back. This crisis has opened new ways to serve and new ways to love. We may set up classrooms in neighborhoods where our friends live again but we will continue to share our faith and provide help to families the way we do daily from our homes and on our phones.
“For now there are faith, hope, and love. But of these three, the greatest is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (CEV)