by Andrea Meier
Parishioner Barbara Foxhall leads the extraordinarily successful English as a Second Language Ministry here at St. John the Divine. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, over 120 students who speak more than 30 languages fill the upstairs classrooms of the Administration Building. Seeing Barbara’s outward confidence as a teacher and ministry leader might lead you to think this has always been her calling. But Barbara’s journey to leading this diverse international community began with seeking renewed purpose from God during a transition point in her life.
In 2009, St. John the Divine held a church-wide study of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. Barbara read the book with great interest. “I was into that book because I had been a stay-at-home mom, and my twins were seniors that year,” she remembered. “I was really praying for guidance on what to do with the rest of my life.”
As she was taking that book to heart she was also serving on the associate vestry, a group of volunteers who act as ushers at our Sunday services. While she was ushering in the 5 pm service, our late deacon, the Rev. Greg Buffone made an announcement. “Our wonderful Greg made an announcement about Tabitha Thiong, a Sudanese refugee who had made her way to Houston with her five children,” she recalled. Greg was having a meeting for parishioners who were interested in forming a group to help Tabitha and her family. Knowing she was looking for what was next, Barbara signed up.
At the meeting, Greg shared that the refugee family included a child with residual damage from meningitis, a child in a wheelchair due to polio, a child who needed open heart surgery, and Tabitha, who did not speak English. Each of the six family members needed someone to support their special needs. The rest of the group of volunteers quickly signed up for everything except teaching Tabitha English. Although she had never taught English, Barbara said “yes” and began meeting with Tabitha every Friday.
During the lessons, Barbara got to know Tabitha and the many challenges that refugees face. Tabitha had never worked before and had not received much schooling. Just making a doctor’s appointment was very difficult. As Barbara became more involved with the family, she began to drive Tabitha to various appointments. While visiting the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services (Alliance) with Tabitha to pick up papers from her caseworker, Barbara learned of an opening for an English teacher there. She applied and was accepted. When she walked into her first group lesson she prayed, “Lord, you have to help me. I don’t know what I’m doing.” God delivered help through internal guidance and external support from other women at St. John the Divine who provided incentive prizes for perfect spelling tests each week.
After eight years at Alliance, Barbara had taught hundreds of refugees English. It was fulfilling, but she sensed a call to something new. While serving on the cooking team at a Cursillo retreat, Barbara met the Rev. Mary Reddick, a deacon from another church. Barbara shared with Mary that “God is telling me to leave Alliance. But I love Alliance. I love teaching ESL. I don’t have a reason to leave.” Mary suggested that Barbara read the book, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg and asked her, “Why don’t you try trusting the Lord?”
Barbara handed in her resignation letter to Alliance the following Monday. She was ready to trust in what God had planned for her without seeing it first. When they asked why she was leaving, she responded, “I don’t know.” No one there could believe it. At a life group meeting, Barbara told the Rev. Reagan Cocke how much she would miss her students and asked him if she could use a classroom at the church a couple of days a week to continue teaching English. Reagan agreed and set her up with a classroom.
Despite sending out hundreds of postcards to her former students, Barbara’s first class at St. John the Divine had only three students. Worrying that she had made a mistake, she went up for prayer after communion that Sunday. She shared with the prayer ministers, “I thought this was what God wanted me to do, but only three people came. Why would they come? It’s River Oaks. I’ve never met anyone in the church who needs to learn English. I think I’m nuts, but can you pray?” That week she went to Looscan Neighborhood Library with a paper flyer and asked if they would put it up. The librarian was about to meet with an ESL group and passed the paper around. When Barbara came to class the next day, she was met by ten new people from the library. “Lord, wow, that’s fast!” she thought gratefully.
Her new students were more fluent and would require different instruction. Several SJD parishioners stepped up and, within a couple of months, the program had grown from one to three levels. Barbara kept praying that more and more people would continue to sign up. “God must love ESL,” she prayed, “because this is really surprising that so many people are coming so quickly.”
As ESL continued to grow, the idea of offering an optional Alpha class to interested students came up. Barbara had participated in Alpha three times before and had good experiences. Yet, when she watched a video with Alpha creator, Nicky Gumbel sharing how many people came to Christ over Holy Spirit weekend and planned to be baptized, she was doubtful. She thought, “I don’t know. Nobody ever gets baptized the times I’ve done it.” Despite her doubts, she agreed to help lead the class and see what happened.
Every week, she faithfully went over the upcoming Alpha videos and provided a list of vocabulary to her group so they could follow along with words like crucifixion, faith, or iniquity that are not common in an ESL curriculum or that a new English speaker needs to survive. In the third week, while exploring forgiveness, the students were asked to share about someone they were having trouble forgiving. During the ensuing emotional conversation, a student from China talked about how he could not forgive the bus driver that ran down his mom while she was riding her bicycle in China, and a Russian student recounted how her husband was murdered by Putin’s men. After Holy Spirit weekend, the Chinese student announced that he was now a Christian. One of the teachers spoke to him in Mandarin to confirm his statement of faith and had Google translate share his message, “I have no peace. I only have peace when I am here in church.” Both he and the Russian student were baptized. In a later session of Alpha, a Japanese student was baptized, and she now attends a church in Tokyo. She is the translator for the many American expats in her church.
ESL at SJD just finished its fifth year. It continues to be more than just an English program; it’s a vibrant international community. Barbara remembers, “I prayed for a long time to not just spread seeds, but to see them flower.” Witnessing how God has taken her willingness to “get out of the boat” and trust God has strengthened her faith. “I’ve always been good at inviting people to church,” she shares. “I can get people to come to just about everything, but then I never knew what to do. I thought I had to do something. And now I just leave it to the Lord, saying, ‘You take it. I don’t know what to do. You take it,’ because obviously, he can. I didn’t expect this to be particularly successful. Time and time again, God has said, ‘I’m here’.”
Is God calling you to get out of the boat? Find a list of ways you can serve at sjd.org/opportunities.