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Vestavia Hills breaks barriers with English classescomment (0)

January 3, 2002

By Frances Pace Putman

In some ways, the new International Conversational English class at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church has broken barriers that some countries haven’t overcome in generations.
Kim Eun Yong, a retired minister from Korea, has been visiting in Birmingham for a couple of months and already has formed relationships that might not have been possible in his own country.
“I have had the chance to meet Japanese women and share friendship,” said Yong, slowly and carefully pronouncing each word. “In Korea, Japan and Korea have bad feelings.”
Yong is happy to see a program like this offered for people just coming into the United States.
“I feel you have warming hearts,” he said with a smile. 
Those “warming hearts” began with Bob and Mavis Hardy, who worked for more than 40 years as missionaries throughout East Asia, in countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. Though they returned home in 1997, the Hardys realized their missions work with the people from the region was not finished. They noticed how many Asian families had moved into the Birmingham area, and that many of them needed help assimilating into the American culture.
The Hardys made an effort to meet the new Asian families and to assist in any way they could — helping them get driver’s licenses, find doctors or meet other families. They volunteered at the Baptist Student Union at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, serving as teachers as well as translators of both languages and cultures, helping people on both sides to understand one another better.
With members of their congregation at Vestavia Hills, the Hardys had tossed around the idea of developing a ministry to reach out to the Asian community. But when the Honda Motor Company announced plans to build a new plant in Lincoln and bring with it many families from Japan, the time seemed right.
In late August, the church began holding weekly conversational English classes, and the attendance has averaged around 20 or so people from countries such as  Japan, China and Korea.
With about 40 more families connected with the Honda plant expected to move into the area soon, the classes will likely continue to grow.
Many of the students, such as Micki Igarashi, have studied English for years, focusing mainly on reading and writing the language.
“This is very helpful to me — listening, just hearing and speaking,” said Igarashi, a native of Japan.  “Now I can hear and understand the news programs.”
Hardy said that for many years, Birmingham Baptist Association had a language ministry, but it was discontinued a few years ago
“Now it is up to the individual churches to respond to the new people who are living in our communities,” he said.  “The world is coming to us, and we cannot ignore that. We have to reach out.” 
Hardy said other Southern Baptist churches such as Dawson Memorial, Homewood, and Shades Mountain, Vestavia Hills, have had strong programs for several years, and Vestavia Hills has looked to them for guidance.  He was quick to point out that his church’s class is not meant to compete with the others, but to offer more opportunities for people to get together to learn and have fellowship.  
In addition to the classes, the group has met for picnics, where children could play together. One week, a few class members went to one of the teachers’ homes to cook and learn to prepare a few American dishes.
Mrs. Hardy said this is especially important for Asian women, who tend to have fewer opportunities to meet people and speak the English language.
As is common in the Asian culture she said, many men come to this country and stay busy, working long hours. “But the women come here and spend much more time at home,” she said. “I don’t know of a single (Asian) mother who works outside the home.”
Natalie Garland, who serves as director of conversational English programs at Vestavia Hills Church, said the weekly sessions include a 45-minute class, then a fellowship break, followed by a session where students are paired by their levels of ability. A number of volunteers help with the classes in different capacities. In addition to about seven teachers, several church members bring refreshments each week and others work in the nursery, where children stay while their parents are in the class.
“Our basic purpose is to have a Christian witness,” said Mrs. Hardy. But, through her work as a missionary, she knows relationships come first. At each class session, there is a short devotional time, but Garland said those coming to the program are not pushed to become Christians.
“We reach out to help them, and we just want them to know that we care,” she said. “God’s love in our hearts makes us want to reach out, and they see that. They know we are sincere. I believe it’s just a wonderful, wonderful ministry.”
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