By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Sylvia Bailey remembers clearly the day that out of the clear blue one of her students asked her if she was a Christian.
“He was from Iran and he started quizzing me on my beliefs and why I believed them,” Bailey said. “Finally I said, ‘Some of the things I believe I have accepted by faith because I have experienced God’s love in so many ways that I can’t help but believe He’s real in my life.’”
The man told Bailey that he found that interesting and the conversation ended. She saw him a few more times in class but eventually he stopped coming.
Then months later she ran into him when she was in the cafeteria at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.
“His eyes were glistening and so hopeful,” Bailey said. “And he said, ‘Mrs. Sylvia, I want you to know I have become a believer.’”
It was these types of stories that filled Bailey’s mind as she spoke Feb. 15 at a celebration held at First Baptist Church, Huntsville, to honor the 50th anniversary of the church’s ESL (English as a Second Language) ministry.
“I was reminded of the words to ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ — ‘Blessings all mine with 10,000 beside,’” said Bailey, who has been a part of the ministry since it began in 1968. “That’s how I feel about the English classes because I’ve been so blessed by the internationals I’ve known and will continue to know. It is a blessing to be a part of.”
When Floy Rawls started the first class 50 years ago, 15 students from a handful of countries gathered, said Ann Smith, co-director of the ESL ministry.
At that point, most of the students were from Germany, wives of the men who worked at the missile school at Redstone Arsenal.
The next week, the number doubled.
And now, half a century later, the church has seen more than 6,000 students from 120 countries walk through its doors to attend English classes.
“This year alone, we’ve got 197 students from 38 countries,” Smith said. “It’s just a wonderful outreach ministry where you can meet people from all over the world.”
In addition to the Feb. 15 celebration, the church marked the ministry’s milestone with special Sunday services Feb. 18. People like Bailey who had been involved with the ministry across the decades — several even from the very beginning — gathered to celebrate what God has done, Smith said.
They aren’t the oldest ESL ministry in the state — one started first in Birmingham, Smith said. But the one at First, Huntsville, is the longest-running one that still exists in Alabama.
“I’ve just felt like God has brought the world to Huntsville,” Smith said. “It’s a blessing to get to meet people from other cultures.”
Many students have basic needs like learning to shop, learning to drive and learning to communicate in the U.S., she said. Others need help preparing for the U.S. citizenship test or the TOEFL, an English-proficiency test used as a gauge for college admission.
“The teachers help with those things, but they also pray for their students and invite them into their homes for meals or holidays,” Smith said.
The ministry also hosts celebrations like baby showers and end-of-the-year parties.
On many occasions, the teachers are seed planters, such as with the man from Iran, Bailey said. “That is often our role, and we are thankful for that opportunity.”
But on other occasions they get to see the fruit of what God is doing, she said.
“We had a student from Japan once and he was ready to accept Christ. He wanted to be baptized before he left to go back to Japan,” Bailey said.
At that point, it was already December and the church had its living Christmas tree already assembled over the baptistry.
“Some of the staff made arrangements for us to go to another church close by and we all gathered there for his baptism — many of his fellow students attended too,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
He and Bailey have kept in touch since he returned to Japan. He’s married a fellow believer, had a baby and is sharing his faith actively in his home country.
“To be a part of something like that is amazing,” Bailey said. “It’s God at work right before your eyes.”
Stuchlik family grateful for ESL ministry
Svetlana Stuchlik said she never intended to stay long in Huntsville.
When she, her husband and 10-year-old son moved there in 2001 for his job, she thought they would only be there a couple of years at most.
“I thought, ‘English might be a good thing for me to learn while we’re here,’” she said with a laugh. “Seventeen years later, we are still here.”
And the English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry at First Baptist Church, Huntsville, changed her life, she said.
“I hope you understand I appreciate this program exists. You are saving us. You are helping us a lot,” Stuchlik told the congregation gathered for morning services Feb. 18 at First, Huntsville, the day the church celebrated its ESL ministry’s 50th anniversary.
Stuchlik said the Thursday morning classes became the place where she and her son could make friends, socialize and feel safe. “I was very excited every Thursday. It was a wonderful experience.”
Her son, Robbie, grew up in the program and even though he was quiet it was a place where he could feel cherished and confident, Stuchlik said. “I’m very grateful for that because for him, it is the world.” (TAB)