Offering Hope Through A Literacy Program

By Fr. John Matusiak

Wheaton, Illinois is a Civil War-era city that today serves as a the capital of DuPage County, home to Chicago’s sprawling far-western exburbs. When Saint Joseph Orthodox Christian Church was established in neighboring Naperville in 1989—the county was home to endless subdivisions and strip malls, “soccer moms,” and the other trappings of American suburban life. Five years later the parish moved to Wheaton and purchased an old Civil War-era black Baptist church building in one of Wheaton’s oldest neighborhoods. Wheaton is also home to Wheaton College, the well-known Evangelical Christian stronghold, and the Billy Graham Center, which is across the street from Saint Joseph’s Church.

The situation began to change in the mid-1990s, as DuPage County became the “first-stop” for countless immigrants and refugees—Bosnians, Ethiopians, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Samoans, Albanians, and others—many of who had been brought to the area under the sponsorship of religious groups or faith-based social and humanitarian agencies. As one might expect, many immigrants have had a difficult time adapting to suburban American life. While long-standing prejudices and high cost of living make life difficult for the immigrants, it is their inability to speak English that has been a major obstacle, whether it be in pursuing meaningful employment or in conducting simple, day-to-day tasks.

When Saint Joseph’s “planted itself” in Wheaton, the conscious decision was made to get involved in the life of the local community. The parish clergy frequently offer the opening prayer at Wheaton City Council meetings. When the need for a cemetery arose, a section of the Civil War-era Wheaton Cemetery was set aside for Orthodox Christians. Wheaton College students regularly visit the parish. The parish council made the commitment to patronize local businesses, and when a new church complex was built in the late 1990’s, local architects and craftsmen were engaged. Strong relationships soon developed with the parish’s neighbors. When a local humanitarian agency, the Peoples’ Resource Center, made the parish leadership aware of the need for literacy programs for new immigrants, the parish decided to initiate classes as a lay outreach ministry to the community.

A Literacy Program Is Initiated

Initially, three Saint Joseph parishioners—Jan and Pat Labun and Subdeadon Abe Rihani—staffed Saturday morning literacy programs at the Resource Center, but as the number of students increased, the entire program was moved to our parish hall. Additional parishioners made the commitment to teach, and each of them received two full days of training, the cost of which was absorbed by the parish. Through grants obtained by the Resource Center, books, dictionaries, and other supplies were provided at no cost to the parish or students.

Today, the program meets at Saint Joseph’s Church for two hours every Saturday morning, with as many as 30 students at any given time. An additional class is held on Sunday afternoons following the parish’s second Divine Liturgy, which is geared to the needs of non-English speaking parishioners.

In addition to providing an opportunity to develop and refine their conversational skills, the classes also provide students with an introduction to Orthodox Christianity. Occasionally, the teachers take their students into the sanctuary and speak about the things the students see therein. Several students, including an entire Vietnamese refugee family of five and numerous Ethiopian individuals and families, have entered the Church as a result of their experience.

The classes have opened the door to a number of other lay ministries in the parish, as many of the students are in need of additional services. Weekly food collections are distributed to the needy, while assistance is given to those seeking medical care, immigration and housing advice, and help in adapting to life in America. The parish takes a special collection on the last Sunday of each month which is used exclusively for the needs of immigrants. Members of the local Ethiopian community, many of whom have become active in the life of the parish, initiated bi-monthly classes for new arrivals from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia as a means of providing essential services and skills necessary in adapting to life in America.

With a growing number of immigrants in virtually every metropolitan area, any parish can easily initiate literacy programs.

1. Begin by contacting local agencies that offer assistance to new immigrants. Ask what programs are currently being offered. If literacy programs are already being conducted, parishioners can volunteer to teach. If no programs are available, ask what resources are available for funding a parish-based literary program. If no funding is available from local agencies, consider funding from within the parish itself. Offering literacy programs is not an expensive proposition. Basic textbooks, dictionaries, pens and paper, notebooks, and other supplies are well within the budget of any parish.

2. Explore funding possibilities from local, county, or state agencies, which often offer grants for literacy programs.

3. Explore local resources for training teachers. Since most literacy programs are conversation-based rather than grammar-based, teachers need minimal training. Essentially, any native English speaker with good grammar, diction, and pronunciation is able to conduct literacy classes with a minimal time investment in terms of training and preparation.

4. Whenever possible, hold classes in the church hall. This opens the doors of the parish to the broader community, and sends a signal that the Church is interested in everyone, and not just “its own people.” On occasion, take students into the sanctuary for conversation. “This is a door” can easily lead to “those are the Royal Doors,” just as “this is a picture” easily leads to “this is an icon.” While the ultimate goal of a literacy program is to improve the students’ language and daily life skills, occasional conversations in the church building can spark an interest in the Orthodox faith. Never give the impression that the parish offers literacy programs strictly as a means of obtaining converts. It is not uncommon to find immigrants who have had negative experiences with other religious bodies that may have pressured them to make a commitment to the faith community “in exchange for” free classes, food parcels, essential services, etc. Certainly students will form an opinion of Orthodox Christianity through their contact with the parish, but teachers must never project the attitude that “we’re teaching you English because we ultimately want to convert you.” Genuine ministry is conducted unconditionally, with “no strings attached.”

5. Do not overlook getting teens involved, especially in teaching immigrant children and teens. At Saint Joseph’s, a junior high school parishioner taught English to a fifth-grade Vietnamese girl for an entire year, and received the Orthodox Church in America’s Saint Peter the Aleut Award for her efforts.

6. Be prepared to offer additional ministries as the needs of your students emerge. As in the case of Saint Joseph’s Church, literacy classes spawned food distribution, charity collections, medical and immigration referrals, and other ministries—including catechesis in the Orthodox faith. Listening to the hopes, fears, and needs of the students and the willingness to address these areas is critical to this ministry, and the ministries that will ultimately emerge.

7. Make every attempt to get the entire parish involved in the effort. While a literacy program can be conducted easily with a handful of teachers, classes should not be held without the knowledge of the entire parish. Inform parishioners of the students’ needs for food, financial and legal assistance, clothing, furniture, and friendship. For example, one of the students at Saint Joseph’s informed his teacher that his sister in Mexico, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis could not afford a wheel chair. The teacher informed the parish clergy, who brought the need to the attention of the parishioners. A special collection was taken to purchase the wheel chair, after which the student and his entire family attended the Sunday Divine Liturgy to publicly thank the parishioners for their generosity. This “put a face” on those being helped by the parish community. Never overlook the fact that, while the vast majority of parishioners may not volunteer to teach, everyone can get involved in providing assistance to the needy students.

Father John Matusiak is the founding pastor of Saint Joseph’s Church, Wheaton, Illinois.