ESL program puts aside cultural differences to build community

Noel, Missouri became a booming immigrant town in only 20 years. It was a small majority-white town, but recently the allure of steady jobs and better living conditions compared to surrounding cities has increased the pull of immigrants to Noel, expanding the ethnic diversity as well. According to World Population Review 2019 roughly 35% of the 1,800 people who live in Noel are not White, and most of them are Hispanic and African. 

When Kara Gebre, lead teacher of Crowder Collge ESL, started teaching at a public elementary school in Noel in 2009, she saw the diversity in the town and noticed the necessity of teaching English to not only kids but also adults. “While I was teaching kindergarten and second grade, I was trying to connect with Somali women and the community after school,” Gebre said. For a while, she taught out of an apartment, but soon, the increasing number of people required her to move to a local mosque. After the building flooded, she began opening up her classroom after school. 

One day, Gebre attended a church in neighboring Neosho, Missouri, and saw that they were looking for people to teach ESL to Somalis in Noel. “At the exact same time as I was teaching the women in the school, they were teaching the men over at Tyson in their learning facility,” she said. Gebre decided to join the two efforts together. Since the facility in Tyson was not big enough to have both men and women students, the team approached the Baptist church in Noel. “We asked for their vision for the community, and if they try to reach out to any Muslims here,” she said. The church allowed them to use its vacant building for their classes.

For the first year, the ESL program only used volunteers, but the program was not sustainable. Gebre approached Crowder college to start the site as a Crowder site. With a grant from Dollar General, ESL Noel officially launched. Now, there are four paid teachers, as well as volunteers and sub-teachers.

Even though Crowder College is not a Christian organization and most of students are not Christians, teachers and volunteers at Noel ESL are all believers, and they share the mission to preach the word of God as followers of Christ. “We don’t openly [share the Gospel] in the class, but we will tell the stories and answer the questions … in a non-offensive way,” Gebre said. “I think English classes are great for breaking down some of the basic barriers, but the deeper level conversation is always out of the class, one-to-one.”

Barbara Caldwell, a voluntary sub-teacher at Noel ESL, said, “The Gospel is for the Jew and Gentile. It’s for all of us. Jesus opened the way for all of us to come to him … and if I can be a link for them to come to know him, perhaps, it is just a way of glorifying God.” From her experience of living overseas, Caldwell understands the importance of community and learning language. “I appreciate people who come here,” she said. “They don’t know the language and there are obstacles they have to overcome to be able to live here, and I am glad to be their friends and help them navigate.”

Cultural differences are challenging and often cause misunderstandings and frustration. However, Gebre has a solid reason to keep doing her job. “That is really the Christ in me,” she said. “We haven’t seen anybody come to Christ yet, but I feel like we are getting closer every year. We’ve got that trust built up.”

Gebre also said her team is “probably reaching a quarter or third of population in Noel. There are a lot of limited English speakers who are not getting accesses to the services. So there is always need for teachers and volunteers for more than just what happens in the classroom.” For her, building a friendship with students and their families out of the classroom is also part of their roles. 

Gebre, Caldwell and other teachers and volunteers will keep reaching out to people who are marginalized, carrying out one mission: to share the undivided and everlasting love of God.