Global Ministry, Local Venue
First Free's English classes offer the chance to serve international friends
Sophia Vale
September 7, 2022

“I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 25:35b)

Looking for a chance to meet and minister to people from other cultures? First Free Rockford hosts English as a Second Language (ESL) classes on Saturday mornings throughout the year, and we need volunteers to teach, greet, file, grade tests and serve as conversation partners.

The free classes meet from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturdays, in several classrooms at church. They serve all levels of English competency, from absolute beginners to people who want to sharpen their grammar and conversational skills.

Many of the current students are native Spanish speakers, though at times the classes look like a gathering of the United Nations. At least 28 countries have been represented throughout the class’s history. Often, people have found out about the class either through word of mouth or by seeing it advertised on the electronic sign near the Mulford Road entrance.

While strangers at first, ESL students quickly form a tight bond as a class as they get to know one another’s stories and grow together in confidence. This year, the class helped friendship bloom in the midst of a tense international crisis.

Natalia is from Russia. Anna is from Ukraine, and still has family in Odessa. Both speak Russian. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Natalia was so embarrassed that she wrote a letter to Anna saying how sorry she was for what was happening between their countries. The two formed a close friendship that lasts to this day.

Anna (pictured left) recently moved away. She filmed the following video and sent it to her classmates to let them know how much their time together meant to her.

No experience necessary

The first 45 to 60 minutes of class each week are instruction in English, followed by 15 to 20 minutes for a Bible story. Then, the rest of the time is table conversation, with the students grouped by ability. Volunteer conversation partners serve as hosts for this portion. Sometimes these are small groups; other times they are one-to-one. Most of the students know enough English to follow along and participate. Conversations might be about the Bible story they just heard, or just small-talk so they can get accustomed to listening to and speaking English. Sometimes, the conversations have even turned to home-repair advice or recipe exchanges.

No prior teaching or ESL experience is required, even for teachers. The classes use an easy-to-follow curriculum (and the students are friendly and patient). Conversation partners do not need to attend every single week, and they can come just for the last hour of the two-hour class. 

Lois Mienert started the ESL classes at First Free 12 years ago. Currently, Jerry and Carolyn Norquist lead, with help from Miguel and Marguerita Perez. They are also joined by Jilayne Bernsten, Raelene Erxleben and Deborah Sewell. The Norquists encourage anyone to come on a Saturday morning to observe, or try a session as a conversation partner. No up-front commitment is needed.

To volunteer or to explore the idea more, contact the church office at 815-877-7046, or email adultministry@firstfreerockford.org and mention the class.

Sophia Vale
Sophia Vale is a wife, mother and the communications director at First Free Rockford. She loves cooking, being active and spending time with her friends and family. She lives in Rockford with her husband and daughter.


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