In the parking lot of Summerville Baptist Church on a cool Sunday evening, throngs of white suburban families congregate, their children chasing each other around while parents catch up on the week’s news beneath a soaring steeple.
If you go
What: World Friends English and citizenship classesWhen: 5-7 p.m. SundaysWhere: Summerville Baptist Church, 417 Central Ave.Price: FreeMore info: 696-0940 or www.summervillebaptist.org
Sunday worship time often is dubbed the most segregated hour of the week. But free English classes at this church are changing that, for a few hours at least.
Head upstairs to the church’s classrooms after 5 p.m. to find an international realm where a Southern lady hugs an Egyptian woman in a headscarf who in turn greets two Chinese sisters who themselves warmly welcome a Latino couple, all with however many English words they share in common.
Folks from Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan, China, Japan, Romania, Columbia, Thailand and Mexico, to name a few countries, gather here every Sunday evening to learn English and study up on becoming American citizens.
The outreach, called World Friends, has provided free English and citizenship classes to 76 people from 23 countries since it began in 2010. Not bad for what started as your basic English as a Second Language class.
It has grown so much that the 30 or so students on hand this evening divide into four classrooms based on their proficiency. In one room, three women sit down with retired teacher Jan Fuller and practice singular and plural nouns.
When Beijing native Xia Wood struggles, Romanian Nely Lemeni leans over to help.
“Sook” Xia says.
“Sock,” the teacher corrects. “One sock. Two socks.”
“Socks. Two. OK!” Wood grins and lifts her foot up above the table to show her sock.
Egyptian native Maha Abdl Mejeed, her head wrapped in a fuchsia scarf, laughs and repeats. “One sock. Two socks ...”
In the hallway hangs last week’s homework: Write sentences using words that start with C.
“That area is so cacophony that you can barely speak.”
“I’m going to Chicago.”
“I plan to get my citizenship.”
So many of the World Friends students want to become American citizens that the church recently added a citizenship class.
Six women and two men sit around a U-shaped table answering questions about American government and geography. Two women wear head coverings. One wears traditional Romanian folk garments.
A Hispanic man wears a Superman shirt with a cape in honor of Halloween’s approach. His wife is attending an English class in the next room.
“We hope that what we tell you is helpful,” teacher Dennis Fuller says. “Our goal is twofold: to teach you what you need to know.”
And also to understand why American is ... America.
“What is the supreme rule of the land?” asks retired Summerville High School teacher Martha Tallon.
“Constitution!” the group calls out.
The group divides into two teams. It’s time for a citizenship face-off.
Summerville Baptist sits in the heart of the town’s quaint, historic downtown. It’s a well-kept brick church but not one that hollers diversity.
Yet its World Friends classes have grown far larger than volunteers expected.
“It’s a huge commitment,” director Linda Hargett says. “But it’s an honor and a blessing to show people we care about them.”
Many of the volunteers are former educators or are married to foreign-born spouses. They have gone through the Southern Baptist Convention’s literacy training, although most don’t speak the foreign languages of their students.
Call it immersion learning on both sides of the classroom table.
The volunteers want to live out Christ’s admonition to make believers of the world. After coming for two or three weeks, they offer every student a bilingual Bible. Choices include an Arabic-to-English translation, as well as Spanish and Chinese translations.
“We want them to know Christian values. It’s not just what we do but is who we are,” Hargett adds.
One student, who is Muslim, recently found a new Bible discarded on a street. Even though it was not her faith’s holy book, the woman rescued the Bible and brought it to the World Friends volunteers.
“God just really touched my heart with that,” Hargett says.
English every day
Here, everyone calls him Bob. But his real name is Euclides Solivan, and if you listen closely, you will hear a hint of an accent that indicates he knows firsthand the challenges his students face.
With a diverse ancestry, Solivan was born in Puerto Rico and traveled with his father, who was in the U.S. Army, and then during his own career in the Air Force.
He hands out fake money and begins to teach everyday financial vocabulary. If each of the students had more money, what would they do with it?
“I would help for my family or something,” Genaro Castro says.
Monse Ramos would send it to her son in Puerto Rico. Sonia Rivera would help her two sons in Mexico pay for college.
“Jewelry!” grins Siew Lau, a Goose Creek resident who is from China. The women all laugh.
They go over the costs of these things.
“Did I give you enough money?” Bob asks.
“No, you are mean!” says Lau’s sister, Linda Liu.
“No, you did not give me enough money,” Solivan corrects with a smile. “So, you would need to what?”
They confer and decide they need to save.
“How can you save money?” Solivan asks.
“Not eat at restaurant,” Rivera offers.
“Don’t go shopping,” Lau adds.
“Don’t go to the fair!” Ramos grins.
Suddenly, an arm reaches into the classroom door and rings a bell. “You’re free!” calls Yong Alexander, a church volunteer who herself is from Korea.
Word of mouth
By free, she means free to snack and socialize. A larger room fills with a dozen or more international accents as Latino sits beside Asian, who sits beside Middle Eastern, who sits beside European.
Maha Abdl Mejeed moved to North Charleston from Egypt four years ago and came to World Friends after her husband, a businessman, saw a poster at the local library.
Xia Wood moved here to join her American husband. Nely Lemeni is Romanian but is staying in Ladson during an extended visit with her daughter.
Much of the group’s growth has come from word of mouth.
Hoda Saleh, who is from Egypt, brought her neighbor, a Jordanian. Maria Lemenny, a Romanian folk singer and artist, brought her cousin.
They sing “Happy Birthday” to a volunteer. And when Hargett announces that a student has received her learner’s permit to drive, the crowd cheers wildly.
Next, it’s time to discuss the week’s letter: C. Everyone was supposed to come armed with a C word.
Hargett suggests “compliment.”
Everyone tries to pronounce the word. No one mocks those who struggle. Here, it is OK, even expected.
“Now turn around to the person behind you and give them a compliment,” Hargett says. The room erupts with accents from around the globe.
Linda points to a proverb written on a whiteboard behind her. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold.”
“I hope you are all able to give someone an apple of gold,” Hargett says. “Our words are very important.”
They close with a prayer, one made to Jesus despite the fact that some here are Muslim or followers of other faiths.
Most heads go down and eyes close. About a dozen don’t.
‘I am an American’
Hoda Saleh came to American from Egypt in 1994 with her husband. Their children are 17 and 14, old enough that Saleh no longer can use parenting demands as an excuse for not learning to read and write English better.
“Before, I am lazy,” she admits, grinning.
She began coming to the World Friends English classes. Now, she is taking the citizenship class. She wants to formally become the American she already feels she is.
“I am an American,” Saleh says matter-of-factly.
Here, the Hanahan resident has made new friends from places as far away as Afghanistan and China.
“I love the people,” she says. “This is good for anyone to come here. You learn a lot.”
Although she is Muslim, Christian prayer and references to the Bible don’t offend her, she says. Nor is she going to convert.
“You have a book, and I have a book,” Saleh says. “All people are the same. There is only one God. I teach my kids this way. I love all the people.”
Perhaps more than the English language itself, this is the reward of World Friends, a showing of one’s love for a neighbor, including a neighbor who speaks another language or hails from another culture.
Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.
Jan Fuller works with Maha Abdl Mejeed (left) and Xia Wood (right) to help them improve their English during class at Summerville Baptist.×
Lowcountry residents, many new to America, go to Summerville Baptist Church to learn to speak or improve their English.×
Linda Liu is among the local residents, many new to the U.S., who seek to improve their English by attending classes at Summerville Baptist.×