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FBC Huntsville’s English as a Second Language ministry celebrates 40 yearscomment (0)

February 28, 2008

By Brian Blackwell

Teaching English may not be rocket science, but rocket science had a lot to do with the blast off of English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at First Baptist Church, Huntsville, four decades ago.

The ministry — which celebrated its 40th anniversary Feb. 14 — has reached people representing more than 100 countries since 1968.

According to Sylvia Bailey, the ministry’s director since 1995, the space industry’s presence in Huntsville greatly contributed to the ministry’s birth.

Ten years after German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his colleagues were brought to Redstone Arsenal to begin developing the U.S. space program, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville was dedicated Sept. 8, 1960.

The move brought an influx of immigrants from Germany and other countries.

“We started because there was a need for some of them to learn our English language,” Bailey explained.

“There were a lot of internationals in Huntsville at a time when the space program was really taking off here. And it hasn’t slowed down since.”

Fifteen people attended the first ESL class. The following week, attendance doubled.

Over the next 40 years, the ministry would see as many as 200 enrolled at one time. Currently 160 people from 30 countries attend the ESL classes each Thursday afternoon.

In addition to God’s guidance, Bailey attributes the ministry’s growth and success to publicity and faithful volunteers from First, Huntsville, and partners such as Madison Baptist Association.

She said the volunteers — who are required to complete a 16-hour workshop based on a curriculum from the North American Mission Board before they can teach the classes — look for an opportunity to share the gospel with their students.

“Sometimes it’s just opening the door for future conversations about the gospel,” Bailey said. “The individual teachers sometimes wait until those individual salvation questions are raised.”

And when they do accept Christ, the students spread the gospel further when they return to their native country, said Gena Heatherly, literacy and community missions coordinator in the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions office of associational missions and church planting.

“That’s been one of the joys since this started,” she said. “It’s been so far-reaching.”

David Hull, pastor of First, Huntsville, echoed the thought.

“The ESL ministry has represented a way for our church to reach out to those in our community and country,” he said.

“By doing this ministry, we meet the basic needs of helping them learn the English language, which helps them prepare for the citizenship test.”

As for the future of ESL at the church, Heatherly believes the ministry will impact the city tremendously for years to come.

“In the 40 years of its existence, they’ve had only two directors, and that’s a real tribute to their commitment,” she said.

“It speaks to the stability and contributes to the ministry’s goal of sharing the gospel with the world.”

And the anniversary celebration was a reminder of just that, Heatherly said.

The event offered a smorgasbord of cultural celebrations, including a fashion show featuring people from 14 nations dressed in their native country’s attire.

“When I saw them in their different costumes, I realized the different cultures and religions they bring to the table,” she said. “And that reminded me of the overall goal of this ministry, which is to obey the commandments in Acts 1:8 … to share the gospel throughout the world.”

For more stories about ESL programs around the state, visit www.thealabamabaptist.org. For more information about language ministries, call Heatherly at 1-800-264-1225, Ext. 597.

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