AMARILLO, Texas—Ministering to internationals is nothing new for First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas. In fact, the current program’s early roots date back to World War II and the Korean War.
According to Sue Kelly, director of the church’s English as a Second Language ministry, as American servicemen came back from those conflicts, many of them returned home with Japanese and Korean war brides who had little or no English skills. For those who settled in Amarillo, volunteers from First Baptist organized language classes to help the women navigate their new culture.
Today, decades later, First Baptist’s International Friends ministry continues to thrive. Weekly ESL classes held on Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons often attract more than 200 students from up to 25 countries. While the coronavirus pandemic cut short this year’s spring semester, plans are under way to launch ESL fall classes next month over Zoom.
The church also serves refugees and other internationals with worship services held in six languages each week – Burundi, Congolese, Karen, Laotian and Vietnamese as well as English. Additionally, a rich blend of as many as 10 languages can be heard joyfully spilling out of the international Sunday School department on any given Sunday morning.
“Amarillo really has a very high refugee population for its size,” explained Kelly, who has coordinated the International Friends ESL program for more than 20 years. “We just feel like the Lord brought them here and we want to help them feel at home, welcome them, teach them English so that they can have friends in the community and so they can get better jobs.”
Along with teaching language skills, Kelly emphasized that sharing about Christ also is an important aspect of ESL ministry. Noting that “each class starts with a Bible verse,” she said, “We try to pick a verse that kind of fits with the English because they come for the English.
“We offer Bibles and Jesus videos in their own language and we have a Bible story for the large group,” she added. “You see people from all different countries and all different backgrounds singing the songs and saying the Bible verses and learning about Jesus.”
Kelly first got involved in ESL in 1975, the same year as the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War which sparked an influx of refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Over the years since then, Amarillo has welcomed refugees fleeing turmoil in Bosnia, Burma, Iran, Iraq and several African countries.
‘God spared me for a better job’
Boon Vongsurith, pastor of First Baptist’s Laotian congregation, was among those who escaped from Laos to Thailand after being held captive because of his Christian faith. Sensing God’s direction to flee the persecution of his home country, he carefully wrapped his Bible in a plastic bag before swimming into the freezing Mekong River dividing Laos and Thailand.
“The two river banks were closed and anything that moved, they would shoot one another. I prayed to God, one prayer, two parts,” Vongsurith recounted. “I said, ‘God, I know in my head I will be drowned or killed escaping from Laos to Thailand. If I die, I pray someone will find my dead body and know that I’m a believer because of the Bible with me. But if you spare me, I will serve you any place, any time.’”
More than 45 minutes later, he made it safely across the river and into Thailand. “This Bible is very important to me,” he said, gently holding aloft the treasured Bible he has carried with him for decades.
Declaring that “God spared me for a better job,” Vongsurith said, “The Laotian ministry here is from birth to burial. … Working with Laotians is a very high honor for me because I love my God and I serve my own people.”
Kelly noted that the ESL program’s “International Friends” title was very intentional. “We want to teach them English but we also want to be their friends and just get to know them,” she explained.
Affirming that “it’s fascinating” to build relationships with people from around the world, she added, “I just enjoy getting to know them and have been in their homes and they’ve been in my home.”
International Friends offers ABC, beginning conversation and advanced ESL training as well as GED and citizenship classes and private tutoring. The classes are led by a team of more than 20 teachers who volunteer their time each week.
Whether in person or online, the program continues to focus on each participant gradually becoming fluent in English. “That doesn’t always happen because of where they start,” Kelly acknowledged. “If they have grown up and lived in a war-torn country all their lives where the schools were not even operating and they never learned to read and write in their first language … and now they’re adults in a country that doesn’t speak their native language, obviously they’re not going to be fluent readers and writers and speakers.”
Even amid those challenges, she added, many of the ESL students do learn to speak English fluently while reading and writing skills often remain harder to master.
From South Sudan to Amarillo
Diana Majok and her family, war refugees from South Sudan, are among the hundreds of internationals who have been welcomed by First Baptist, Amarillo, over the years.
“It was a miracle the way we found First Baptist Church,” Majok recalled. She said Mary Lou Serratt, “one of my friends who I call a sister,” knocked on her door and invited her family to church on the same day they were moving in to their apartment in 2005. Serratt is a longtime leader in the international Sunday School ministry.
“Since then, we found the church family was our home and our family,” Majok affirmed. “My husband and all of us found the truth. We learned how God died for us and how He loves us and what Christianity means.
“When we were coming from our country, we just called ourselves Christians but we didn’t know what Christianity meant,” she said. “But Jesus died for us and He forgave us. Then we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.”
Noting that Pastor Howie Batson baptized her, her husband and all five of their children, Majok added, “I always remember how they found us and how they welcomed us for Christianity. … It was really beautiful. It was a blessing.”
Majok said she is especially grateful for the church’s spiritual impact in the lives of their children. Their older daughter, who was named a National Acteens Panelist in 2010, recently served two years in Africa with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
Active in both ESL and Woman’s Missionary Union, Majok has served on the state level as a member of the WMU of Texas Board of Directors. Her WMU involvement at First Baptist, Amarillo, includes facilitating a Sudanese WMU group of about 20 women who save and pool their coins for missions offerings and make and send handcrafted items to a missionary in West Africa.
“It shows us how much it helps when we put our hands together and help the missionaries who are all over the world,” Majok said. “It makes you feel a part of the body of Christ as we’re doing this together.”
Strengthening the Body of Christ
As First Baptist continues to meet the needs of individuals and families throughout Amarillo, “we found that the best ministries that we do, the most successful and fruitful ministries have come upon us organically,” explained Associate Pastor Trevor Brown, who coordinates the church’s missions emphasis.
“We didn’t go looking necessarily to achieve one thing in particular, but people started arriving in our city and our church has again and again responded because they’ve been convinced from the beginning that love of neighbor is a part of what it means to be Christians,” he reflected. “They have loved these people not because they were from a certain place or even necessarily because they were new, but because suddenly they were our neighbors.”
Emphasizing that the church’s ministry to internationals is a two-way street, he said refugees and other immigrants “teach us new things about what it means to believe and what it means to have faith in God and to trust Him.”
“The body of Christ is stronger when we’re more diverse,” Brown concluded. “The more people we welcome and the more space we find to let others worship here and the more we can equip internationals to reach their friends, the more the Kingdom of God grows and comes alive right here in front of us.”
By Trennis Henderson, WMU National Correspondent