My Stories

Language from the Masses to the Few

The little church with the big heart mentioned previously decided to start an ESL program (English as a Second Language). This was in 1981 to about 1983. There was a good-sized and growing population of Hispanics (those we now refer to as Latinx) in the community along with many Southeast Asians escaping the ravages of what was left of the Vietnam War. We put the notice out to other churches in the community, including non-Baptist ones, for persons interested in teaching ESL classes with our church as being the center due to its location in a large residential section of the city.

The outcome was an adequate number of teachers from our church, Lutherans, Methodists and the Community Church (yes, “the”. I’ll explain that another time.). A trainer came from the Northwest Baptist Convention in Portland. All equipped and ready to go, we put the word out. And they came.

We ended up with 75 Southeast Asians and one Latinx couple enrolled. The students were kind, gentle and very appreciative of the opportunity to learn the “language of the American masses” as well as customs in the United States. Many of the Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians) had not been in the United States very long, so they had a long way to go to understand their adopted country. In fact, one evening I went by to see how things were going before the start of classes (I did not teach, but my wife did). The person who came to be looked upon as a leader, saw me and sought me out while coaxing a young man toward me. It turns out the young man had just arrived in the United States that day. He was from Laos.

The de facto leader was from Cambodia, and he was an imposing person, if you did not know him. He stood almost six feet tall of slender build, had black hair down to his shoulders and a fu manchu moustache. I still remember his name, if not the spelling: Phonosay Sitidat. I memorized it, partially because it was musical to say.

The students were classified as Refugees, so they were able to get some help from agencies through government funding. However, not everyone welcomed them. One night, we got word that a family of Cambodians were driving in a car and were run off the road by someone(s) who didn’t care for Southeast Asians settling in our city. They were all right, but it is sad and disconcerting that such things happen regardless of color or nationality of birth – and still happen today.

We hosted the ESL program for two years. Then the Community Church offered to sponsor it as they had more resources than our little church. We saw the wisdom in that offer, so we accepted the proposal. They definitely had more resources as they had an apartment complex they set aside to help the Southeast Asians, and they were teaching them other skills they could use in the workplace, such as sewing with sewing machines.

I’ll end with this anecdote. For each of the two years our church sponsored ESL classes, we would have a graduation ceremony in May or June. It was a joyous affair, highlighted by a good old potluck. So the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians all brought their DELICIOUS dishes and we Americans brought our comfort-food fare. We Americans gratefully sampled the various Southeast Asian dishes, and the Southeast Asians enjoyed – the Southeast Asian dishes. Our food was still just too strange.

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