Ministering to internationals is nothing new for First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas. In fact, the current program’s early roots date back to World War II and the Korean War.
According to Sue Kelly, director of the church’s English as a Second Language ministry, as American servicemen came back from those conflicts, many of them returned home with Japanese and Korean war brides who had little or no English skills. For those who settled in Amarillo, volunteers from First Baptist organized language classes to help the women navigate their new culture.
Today, decades later, First Baptist’s International Friends ministry continues to thrive. Weekly ESL classes held on Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons often attract more than 200 students from up to 25 countries. While the coronavirus pandemic cut short this year’s spring semester, ESL fall classes were launched in September over Zoom.
Rich blend of cultures
The church also serves refugees and other internationals with worship services held in six languages each week — Burundi, Congolese, Karen, Laotian and Vietnamese as well as English.
Additionally, a rich blend of as many as 10 languages can be heard joyfully spilling out of the international Sunday School department on any given Sunday morning.
“Amarillo really has a very high refugee population for its size,” said Kelly, who has coordinated the International Friends ESL program for more than 20 years.
“We just feel like the Lord brought them here and we want to help them feel at home, welcome them, teach them English so that they can have friends in the community and so they can get better jobs,” she said.
Kelly emphasized that sharing about Christ is an important aspect of ESL ministry. Noting that “each class starts with a Bible verse,” she said, “We try to pick a verse that kind of fits with the English because they come for the English.
“We offer Bibles and Jesus videos in their own language and we have a Bible story for the large group,” she added. “You see people from all different countries and all different backgrounds singing the songs and saying the Bible verses and learning about Jesus.”
Kelly first got involved in ESL in 1975, the same year as the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War which sparked an influx of refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Over the years since then, Amarillo has welcomed refugees fleeing turmoil in Bosnia, Burma, Iran, Iraq and several African countries.
‘One prayer, two parts’
Boon Vongsurith, pastor of First Baptist’s Laotian congregation, was among those who escaped from Laos to Thailand after being held captive because of his Christian faith. Sensing God’s direction to flee the persecution of his home country, he carefully wrapped his Bible in a plastic bag before swimming into the freezing Mekong River dividing Laos and Thailand.
“I prayed to God, one prayer, two parts,” Vongsurith recounted. “I said, ‘God, I know in my head I will be drowned or killed escaping from Laos to Thailand. If I die, I pray someone will find my dead body and know that I’m a believer because of the Bible with me. But if you spare me, I will serve You any place, any time.’”
Making new friends
More than 45 minutes later, he made it safely across the river and into Thailand. “This Bible is very important to me,” he said, gently holding aloft the treasured Bible he has carried with him for decades.
Declaring that “God spared me for a better job,” Vongsurith said, “The Laotian ministry here is from birth to burial. … Working with Laotians is a very high honor for me because I love my God and I serve my own people.”
Kelly noted that the ESL program’s “International Friends” title was intentional. “We want to teach them English but we also want to be their friends and just get to know them,” she said.
International Friends offers ABC, beginning conversation and advanced ESL training, as well as GED and citizenship classes and private tutoring. The classes are led by a team of more than 20 teachers who volunteer their time each week.
Whether in person or online, the program continues to focus on each participant gradually becoming fluent in spoken English.
Emphasizing that the church’s ministry to internationals is a two-way street, FBC Amarillo Associate Pastor Trevor Brown said refugees and other immigrants “teach us new things about what it means to believe and what it means to have faith in God and to trust Him.”
“The body of Christ is stronger when we’re more diverse,” Brown said. “The more people we welcome and the more space we find to let others worship here and the more we can equip internationals to reach their friends, the more the kingdom of God grows and comes alive right here in front of us.”