Testimony by Avery Chen

Posted by West End Presbyterian Church on

When I volunteered to teach with ESL, I expected to teach English. I did not expect to make 13 new friends.

At 6:40pm on a Tuesday in September, Kaitlyn and I waited nervously for our first class to begin. We were co-teaching the Pre-Literate English class. Not only did our students not know any English, but most of them were also illiterate in their native language. Heather and Lori had further terrified me with the information that many of the students may not be numerate. In other words, they not only lacked the vocabulary to count in English, but they might not understand the concept of numbers.

“So how will they know to show up at 6pm for class?” I asked, baffled. 

Heather shrugged. “They’ll figure it out.”

So Kaitlyn and I waited for our students with no small amount of trepidation. 

But when two women in head coverings appeared at our door, the connection was immediate. 

“Salaam!” the older woman said. I went to shake her hand, but found myself caught up in a motherly embrace. She held me tightly, rocking from foot to foot. She kissed both my cheeks, twice. When she finally let me go, I was a bit breathless. 

I turned to the younger woman, who looked about my age. 

“Salaam,” she said. Her eyes twinkled with hidden humor. Then she too hugged me and pressed a kiss on each of my cheeks. 

After two years of COVID-19 and limited physical touch, the hugs of these two women felt like a balm on a part of my heart that I did not know was hurting. 

“Welcome to class,” I said. 

To give you an idea of what ESL is like, day to day, please review these very serious class rules. 

The Ladies’ Guide to a Fun English Class

Rule #1: Joke about husbands, brothers, babies, children, and pregnancy. These jokes are universal. For example, upon being told the Bible story about the Woman at the Well, our student Afshan exclaimed: “Five husbands? Ugh! One husband—“ and then she slumped dramatically in her chair, as if exhausted beyond measure.

Rule #2: Play games! Our ladies were surprisingly willing to be silly and play English learning games like Simon Says. We especially enjoyed pairing up a student from the Middle East and Latin America. 

Rule #3: Laugh a lot. Laugh when you fail to explain something. Laugh when a teaching game goes awry. Laugh when one student says, after being told the story of Zaccheus, “I did not like it when Jesus stole all the money.” Then correct her quickly. 

Rule #4: Make friends with your co-teacher. Kaitlyn and I didn’t know each other well before we were assigned to be co-teachers. I had some experience teaching ESL before, but she didn’t. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut while we taught. But over time, we began to see that we complemented each other well. Kaitlyn has a soothing presence that set our students at ease, while I was the “hype woman” who made sure the students did not fall asleep in the middle of the class. Look for how you complement each other, and meet outside of class to get to know one another!  

Rule #5: Be tactile. Women from the Middle East, especially, are VERY tactile. Let them lead, of course. But if they hug you — hug them back! If they kiss you—kiss them back! Huma and I do not speak the same language. But when she enfolds me in a long, motherly embrace, kissing both my cheeks repeatedly, I have no difficulty understanding her love. Note: confine physical affection to people of your own gender. To be respectful of cultural differences, I only shake hands with Middle Eastern men, or just nod my head politely.

Rule #6: Set your standards high. Some of these ladies have never had the chance to go to school before. By encouraging them that they CAN learn, and by setting the expectation that they study outside class, you are saying: “You have the ability to learn as well as your husband / brother. You have value. I take you and your desire to learn English seriously.” The majority of our students rose to that standard. One student from Iran scored a 94% on the final exam — the highest score in class — despite only being in the States for a year. When I told her her test score, she raised her hands over her hand and literally jumped with joy, beaming brightly. Yes! Praise God. You have value. 

Rule #7: “Do not be terrified and do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Teaching English may feel scary to you. Dedicating one weeknight a week to a new activity may be daunting. Telling Bible stories in English to a bunch of Muslim women who can barely speak English may feel futile. Praying with Muslims probably feels even scarier. 

But guess what? God is with us wherever we go, and that includes ESL. To my surprise, it was some of the most devout Muslim women who were the most interested in the Bible stories we told each week. 

Further, 95% of the Muslim women I’ve met through ESL or Food Pantry welcome prayer. They know we are praying in Jesus’s name. And yet they accept it gladly! Perhaps they see it as a sign we care. 

Perhaps they believe we are praying to the same God. Or perhaps because the Holy Spirit is working on their hearts. Whatever their reasons, they welcome our prayers. Praise God! 

The other day, I texted a prayer to one of my students, and she texted me back: “Hello my dear, thank you very much for trusting in God.”

Amen. This student, in particular, struggles with many burdens. I pray that she and her husband will know Jesus one day. 

I signed up to teach English. But what I received, in the end, was the warmth of intimate friendship, and the joy of knowing that Jesus loves these Muslim women, and that he died to save them from their sins. 

Do you want to see Christ at work among the nations? 

The nations are here. 

Consider volunteering with ESL. 


-Written by Avery Chen