Gift Of Literacy, Gift Of Love

By Sue Talley

Is there anything more frustrating than being in a foreign country and not even being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet, or to make sense of a single word? One longs even to be able to read a billboard! This is the situation in which twenty million English-speaking Americans find themselves in their own country, together with countless refugees, immigrants, and migrants. In our area, it is the condition of thousands of Slavic and Greek immigrants of Orthodox background, and minority peoples, for whom learning to speak and read English is a key to friendship, self-esteem, and openness to the Word of God.

Few Orthodox Christians are aware of the vast opportunity for service available as teachers of English as a second language, or the ease with which they can become joyously involved as tutors in a literacy program. Yet more and more Orthodox parishes are sponsoring refugee families, earnestly desiring to help immigrants in every aspect of their resettlement. There are now several well-designed and highly effective literacy programs, created through years of experience, as “emergency English for refugees.” They are largely sponsored by Church and service organizations other than our own, and their volunteer participation, up to the present, has been largely non-Orthodox, but they are available to people of all faiths and represent one very positive effort of inter-church service and cooperative Orthodox witness.

An Act of Love

Hear the urgency of active love in the words of St. James: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say to them ‘Depart in peace, be warmed, be fed,’ notwithstanding, you give them not those things which are necessary to the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15, 16.) The Apostle goes on to assure us that the proof of our faith is the good works that we do in Christ’s name. Many of us do not have abundant financial resources to share as we would wish with the poor, but all of us reading this article have something vital we can share with those in need: English language and reading skills. The materials used by the tutor and students are available to them at the lowest possible cost, and there may be programs in your area already existing for the purpose of teaching English and literacy. In such a case, you might not need to start a program in your own church, but become involved with one already existing in a church, community group, or agency.

Teaching the Illiterate to Read

In addition to tutoring refugees, immigrants, and migrants, it is extremely rewarding to teach English-speaking persons who are in prison, or functionally illiterate, to read. It is estimated that eighty percent of the people now in the New York State correctional facilities are the products of childhood abandonment, foster homes, and institutions. Their frequent illiteracy is generally not of their own choice, but happened because no one has ever cared enough about them, over a long enough period of time, to see that they received the basic skills we take for granted.

We recently read an article by an intelligent young man who has been in a California State prison for murder, and who was tutored by a volunteer from Volunteer Reading Aides. Although learning to read did not get him out of prison (he is there for life,) it did give him a completely new lifeĀ—a life of faith in Christ and of service to his fellow prisoners. This was possible because of the loving influence of his Christian tutor. The publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Come, Receive the Light, includes the New Testament, along with other texts designed to bring the reader to the understanding of Christ and the Church. The New Testament translation used was written specifically for the new reader, and might be an appropriate gift for someone completing a course in basic English.

Getting Started

There is, then, abundant incentive for teaching English as a second language, or teaching English-speaking people to read. How is one to go about finding an existing literacy program, or to set one up in his own church and become a tutor?

First, appraise the existing programs in your community. You might check with adult basic education centers, YMCA/YWCA, the American Council for Nationalities Service, your public library, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and churches with a refugee resettlement program or established tutoring program (such as Riverside Church, New York City, at (212) 222-5900.) The Manhattan phone book lists the Literacy Volunteers of New York City, (212) 873-4462, which is an organization oriented to both literacy and English as a second language. Of this organization, the LIRS Manual for Sponsors of Refugees offers the following information:

“Staff members of the organization provide English as a Second Language training workshops and have a comprehensive set of materials available. The training features practical techniques for teaching, ..and practical suggestions for setting up a community-based tutoring project. ..Order forms, workshop training schedules around the country, a directory of state affiliates and other information can be obtained by writing or calling the national headquarters of Literacy Volunteers, Literacy Volunteers of America, 404 Oak Street, Syracuse, New York 13203, phone (315) 474-7039.”

Another highly effective program, the Volunteer Reading Aides of Lutheran Church Women, is sponsored by that auxiliary group (LCW) of the Lutheran Church in America. Not only does it supply inexpensive, easy-to-read, survival English reading materials, it offers an Emergency English workshop, six hours long, in which the participant is trained to develop lessons from scratch (in addition to the text) and a fifteen-hour course which provides a more in-depth experience in how to teach refugees. This program utilizes the highly effective Laubach Literacy Method (“Each One Teach One” ) and workshops provide volunteer aides with ample practice teaching opportunities. The Laubach method has been used successfully in more than 100 countries. People presently tutoring include people from high school age to retirement and from many walks of life. Prompt information is available about the VRA program from Miss Martha Lane, Coordinator, Volunteer Reading Aides, LCW, 2900 Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129, phone (215) 438-2200. Through her, workshops on “how to” are available to be presented in your parish.

Literacy projects such as these give refugees and unlettered Americans the opportunity to work and function as contributing members of our society. They give tutors an opportunity for vast cultural and spiritual enrichment, and most of all, the opportunity to share the joyous experience of Christ’s sacrificial love. We urge you and your parish to consider this rich possibility for ministry and for Orthodox Christian witness.

Sue Talley is a concert pianist by profession and an active member of Christ the Saviour Church in New York City.