by Lee Ann Walling
We wondered if anyone would show up last January for the first English as a Second Language (ESL) class targeting stay-at-home moms. That morning, we tested and registered 12 Latina women and one Pakistani man, filling up the class. Two days later, eight more showed up and were placed on a waiting list. The classes in St. Paul’s basement continue to be full, and so is the nursery we created. On most days, there are at least five toddlers and two infants. The students are from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and Pakistan.
The ESL classes were not what I had in mind at all when I first expressed an interest to the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown about a church or mission plant. I was thinking dinner church, community garden, contemporary music, social justice — because that’s where my interests were.
But the bishop was interested in serving Georgetown, which is now almost 50 percent Hispanic. So we met with individuals, social service agencies, Sussex Tech, and others, and we learned that moms with children at home need to learn English. St. Paul’s interim rector, the Rev. Larry Hofer, welcomed these efforts. I dusted off my high school Spanish; in 1973, I spent six weeks studying in Saltillo, Mexico. After several months of meeting, listening, and planning, the Rev. Deacon Chris Miller-Marcin and I had organized a partnership with St. Paul’s Church, Georgetown and Sussex Tech Adult Education.
Both Chris and I are convinced the Holy Spirit made things happen in Georgetown. After spinning our wheels for several months, two critical game-changers happened: Sharon Mackwell, a new parishioner at St. Paul’s who had ten years of experience teaching ESL, took an interest; and Linda Eklund, the principal of James H. Groves Adult High School at Sussex Tech, strongly believed there was a need we could meet at St. Paul’s. She offered significant resources, such as a paid paraprofessional, laptops, curriculum, and a community marketing effort.
The classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays are laid-back, with a sense that all the students are on this adventure together. “There’s a level of commitment that I see among these students. I think they’re having fun. Who could ask for more if you’re teaching?” asked Sharon, the St. Paul’s parishioner who volunteered to teach.
“I think the draw is that people trust us,” she said. “We are giving them the opportunity to see themselves as something other than a stay-at-home mom who is inhibited by the language barrier.”
Sharon graduated from Yale Divinity School with a Master of Divinity and has spent most of her working life at agencies and ministries that provide refugee and immigration services. While teaching English in Merida, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula, she and a handful of friends launched what became the only Episcopal church around. It was a welcoming place for Merida’s ex-pat LGBT community.
After leaving Mexico, she landed in Georgetown to be closer to family. “I had no idea there was any Latino population. I knew nothing,” she recalled. “I thought it was all farmers.”
The Episcopal Church in Delaware contributed support for childcare, curricula, and equipment needs. We tapped the Barnabas Fund for a projector, white board, kiddie tables, and other furnishings. The Rev. Mariann Babnis at All Saints Church and St. George’s Chapel, Rehoboth Beach/Harbeson opened up the parish thrift shop. We filled a shopping cart with teddy bears, wooden blocks, trucks, and other toys, and we added a rocking chair and bookcase. We set up the nursery with help from parishioners of St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Church, Lewes.
“It is no coincidence that Lee Ann, Linda, Sharon, Father Larry, and I partnered to help the Hispanic community,” said Miller-Marcin. “We had the desire to listen, seek, and learn what was needed. We found one another in this new ministry. We are gradually going to have more offerings, as the Holy Spirit guides us. This is a wonderful opportunity to serve the community and lead our lives doing God’s work through Jesus’ example.”
During General Convention in 2018, the bishop and I met with the Episcopal Church’s Missioner for New Church Starts, the Rev. Tom Brackett. He cautioned us not to be “a cage in search of a bird.” It took months of chance on-the-ground encounters, meetings, and questions to discern that what the community needed most were ESL classes that provided free childcare. We also learned that the mostly Guatemalan community around Georgetown tends to be less Catholic and more evangelical, so any future effort to offer worship will likely be less sacramental and more ecumenical.
Sharon summed up this ministry for all of us when she said, “God takes you where you are and shows you something new. That’s been kind of a refrain in my life,” she said, recalling our Baptismal Covenant. “That’s why I do it. I believe in the dignity of all people.”
Lee Ann Walling is a member of Christ Church, Dover and lives near Lincoln.