MONTCLAIR – When Pastor Earl Kim was first appointed to the First United Methodist Church of Montclair in 2012, he immediately noticed the growing number of immigrants and the lack of service programs available for them in the surrounding area. After a discussion with his wife Jee Hei Park, who had completed an internship for a non-profit organization which offered various programs for immigrants, including ESL, the couple agreed to initiate free English as a Second Language (ESL) and Spanish speaking classes at the church “as a great outreach program connecting the church to the community.”
Since its launch in the fall of 2013, the program has assisted more than 200 immigrants and has been a recipient of the Harvest Mission Fund of the GNJ and the RJB Mission Grant.
“This was the first time the church had offered this program which is open to all,” said Kim. “Everything is offered free-of-charge; no registration fee and no tuition. We even provide all the materials needed in class.”
In preparation of opening the program, in 2012 church members discussed the ‘free-of-charge’ policy for the program and, “we, in one mind, wanted this to be completely open and accessible to anyone who wants to know English,” said Kim. “We don’t want their economic or civil status to be an obstacle to learning a new language and culture. We cherish and are more than willing to continue this policy.”
The program, called LINK Language Learning, started as a mission initiative of the church. According to Kim, the foremost goal is to appreciate and promote diversity and inclusiveness by exchanging language and cultures.
Reflecting the population surrounding Montclair, the majority of the students are from Latin America – Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. Students from Middle Eastern nations such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Algeria, and Morocco are also in attendance as well as Asian students from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
“We have a few students who are from the Muslim tradition and some of them, but not all, felt a bit strange about coming to a church building,” said Kim. “But soon they opened their minds and mingled with us as well. We have a good number of students working as au pairs in the area with most of them from Latin America and Europe. This program is more than just learning and teaching English. This program has been a place where all participating build up a community of friendship and care.”
The church offers ESL classes on Wednesday evenings with classes meeting weekly for 12 to 13 weeks in both the fall and spring semester in addition to a four week summer session. There are two levels of classes – beginner-low intermediate and intermediate-advanced. Last fall, Spanish classes were also debuted.
“It was a successful start as we drew some local residents who wanted to learn Spanish. We are now in the process of reorganizing with the plan to reboot next spring,” said Kim. “This is a mission and ministry solely to the community.”
The church is collaborating with the Montclair Board of Education and the Montclair Public Library. In partnership with the library, they are developing new classes and curriculum which are more purpose-oriented.
“All of the volunteers who teach serve from their goodwill,” said Kim. “All are greatly passionate about this mission, putting their time and energy into developing curriculum and helping the students even outside the classroom. Our program is now well-established and well-known for our professional teaching and hospitable environment.”
Each semester the church’s program has 25 to 30 students and almost half are returning students.
“We see that everyone in the program -students, teachers and child caregivers- builds a great community and becomes a family,” Kim said. “Some of them are interested in our church, come to Sunday worship and become part of our congregation too,” he added.
Kim believes the program is a ministry that aims to be a bridge connecting the church and the local community of Montclair and nearby towns.
“Monclair FUMC offers this program not to simply teach English but to do God’s mission more tangibly and actively,” he said. “By supporting those who need help with English, we have become a city center where God’s inclusive love is strongly demonstrated and practiced. This program is an essential way that our church can contribute to the community and ultimately, an important way the church invites people from the community.”