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English instructors teach more than language


Interest in learning English is growing across the world. Here, eager students prepare for class commencement in China.

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Sept 1, 2005
-by Ryan Miller

Elkhart, Ind. — For three straight summers, Olga Kazak traveled from her Belarus home to Lithuania Christian College’s English Language Institute. She sweated over textbooks and strained to understand the unfamiliar words from her instructors’ lips. At the end of each summer, she sat for a single test that would determine her future.

Kazak’s dream: to learn English and attend LCC. Twice she failed and left Lithuania with tears in her eyes. The third year, she barely passed.

This spring, after she spent four years learning and deepening her faith and her business acumen, James Mininger, LCC president, watched Kazak confidently present a complex business model proposal to a group of European entrepreneurs – completely in English.

“Olga's presentation was one of those moments when I realized without question that LCC is accomplishing its mission” of creating faithful leaders for a new Eastern Europe, Mininger said. And Kazak's accomplishments would not have existed without the language.

Interest in learning English is growing across the world. In Eastern Europe, many young people seek out LCC, an English-language institution that aims to educate the next generation of Eastern European leaders from a Christian context. In Asia, students and executives hope mastering the English language will allow them to better fit into an emerging global marketplace. The government of Mongolia has declared English the nation’s official second language; some predict English will be common there within two decades.

“English has become the norm and the trade language of the world,” said Pat Houmphan, a Witness worker in Thailand, who, with his wife, Rad, use English teaching as part of their ministry. From business relationships to exploring the Internet, Houmphan said, “If you know English, you get a bit of everything.”

The increased interest has opened new doors for mission workers seeking to integrate Christian learning into vocabulary and grammar lessons. A 2002 Christianity Today report said English teaching may be “the 21st century's most promising way to take the Good News to the world.” Nearly 20 percent of Mennonite Church Canada international workers currently teach English as part of their ministry, many supported by partnerships with Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee and other organizations.

Gordon Janzen, Witness Mission Partnership Facilitator for Asia, notes that partners in Asia continue to request English teachers as part of the outreach of the church. “By placing Christian English teachers in various settings in Asia, we are not only responding to an urgent need, but we also discover remarkable opportunities for sharing one’s faith in word and action. For our workers who teach English, this is not just a means towards ministry, it is ministry.”

Phil and Julie Bender, Witness workers at Chongqing University of Medical Sciences, compared Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom as seeds growing silently and leaven working invisibly to their teaching. While the Chinese government restricts open evangelism, the Benders can talk about the importance of their faith when questions arise in class or in personal conversations with students.

In South Korea, Witness worker Cheryl Woelk works with Connexus, an extension of the Korea Anabaptist Center. Organizers are clear about their purpose – the Connexus web site and brochures mention their Christian focus and offerings include courses focused on peace building. By developing relationships with students inside and outside of the classroom, Woelk can model Christian discipleship and live her faith.

“Sharing who I am is a big part of the teacher role,” Woelk said. “How God uses that, that’s not up to us to decide, but we are willing to offer that to God’s work.”

A similar situation exists in Mongolia, where one worker who teaches through Joint Christian Services International said relationships must extend outside the classroom. “This means they come to your home, spend time with you … so they can practice English, but also so that a relationship can be built, questions asked and answered,” she said.

Houmphan said teaching is about building bridges that allow conversations about Jesus to take place.

“If we go in and (immediately) talk about Christian faith, it can offend people and they’re not interested,” he said. “By teaching English, we make friendships.” Since they first went to Thailand in 1996, two of the Thai teachers they have worked with have become Christians and joined the Houmphans’ church.

Still, teachers often must tread carefully lest they overstep cultural bounds.

In former Soviet-bloc countries, teachers were strict authority figures and students were used to obedience. Many adults are still reminded of overwhelmingly negative educational experiences. Now Lithuanians need to learn English as their country integrates into the EU. So they come to LCC's evening English classes where they are valued and respected, according to Robin Gingerich. They learn because of motivation, not intimidation. They leave the classroom knowing a language and knowing they are loved.

Similarly, teachers in Asia possess not only great respect, but great power.

“Trying to force things on someone is completely unacceptable and is, in a way, an abuse of that power as a teacher,” said Woelk.

Monica Cho first visited Connexus to learn English. Now she works as a receptionist there after previously working for another English academy. She noted the difference between the mission teachers and the public schools. “In high school … the teachers were very strict and distant. At Connexus, the teachers are my friends,” she said.

While nearly a quarter of South Koreans profess Christianity, some who visit Connexus have been turned off by aggressive Christians in the past. Woelk said several students have remained in Connexus classes for several years because they appreciate learning from believers who carry a strong sense of faith without being overly forceful.

In the end, Gingerich said her role is not to teach theology, but English – that teaching is valuable in and of itself. Regardless of what you do, she said, “doing a good job of what you’re doing is mission work.”

Many Mennonite Church and Christian ministries work together to bring the love of God to people around the world. Pat and Rad Houmphan are Mennonite Church Canada Witness Mennonite and Mission Network workers in Thailand, as are Phil and Julie Bender (in China with partner China Educational Exchange), Cheryl Woelk in Korea, and worker in Mongolia (with partner Joint Christian Services). James Meninger is a Mennonite Mission Network volunteer in Lithuania. Robin Gingerich teaches in Lithuania through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Central Committee.