News and Views

Church opens hearts and doors to strangers

Posted by Linda Worthington on

By Linda Worthington
UMConnection Staff

When you walk into the “Rainbow Room” at Chevy Chase UMC Saturday mornings, you might think the people around the U-shaped table are a mini-United Nations. A nearby wall proves it. Names and countries of origin are written on colorful construction paper: Mexico, Ecuador, Liberia, Eritrea, Guyana, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guinea, Peru.

The people are here to study for their citizenship exam. They expect the class will improve their chances of passing the exam required of all immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. Some of the students are fluent in English, some are not and struggle to understand the questions they’ll face on the exam.

Judy Smith, chair of CCUMC’s Hospitality Committee in 2011, with the experience of teaching such a class in the 1990s, presented the idea to a Church Council. She obtained the resources and volunteers needed to sit one-on-one (or two) so each student, regardless of English ability, would be able to learn. Word went through the affluent community and the nannies and housekeepers began to show up. The first class was in February 2012 and since then two or three 10-12-week classes are held each year. There is no charge.

Michael, an 18-year-old from Liberia, wants to be a citizen because he’s preparing to enter a university, “and it will be much easier,” he said. He’s lived in the US “since I was a baby,” which explains his excellent English, both spoken and written, but only now can he apply to be a citizen.

Lemlem is from Eritrea, and has worked most of the 23 years she’s lived in the Washington area in a hotel. She’s currently out of work because of some physical problems, but is able to drive to the church on Saturdays. She speaks understandably, but says, “I don’t know writing,” a skill required for part of the citizenship exam but not for her job.

The 13 members of the class grouped around a wall map of the world as their teacher, Bob Levering, a member of CCUMC and a retired teacher, reviewed some geography. He asked them to identify the US borders and the states that border them, which are the biggest and smallest states. He called on students by name to point out the answers. Sometimes they could, sometimes not. He emphasized that these will be on the exam.

The class is registered with the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), which will provide the questions in written form or on a CD.  But CCUMC prefers the students’ study book, “Citizenship: Civics and Literacy,” partly because it’s illustrated with the subject matter being discussed. It can be purchased for $17 and students can write the answers in it. They can also borrow one and not write in it. The church subsidizes the cost for students who can’t afford one.

Today’s class, on civics and history, started with questions related to the colonies. Levering asked them to identify the original colonies and asked how those governors were appointed. “They weren’t voted for like they are today,” he explained, then added they were appointed by King George III of England. “He appointed all the governors and levied all the taxes, which the colonies had to pay to England.”

Levering went through actual questions about the U.S. Constitution, the Constitutional Convention, and the Federalist papers. Many of the questions American adults today might have trouble answering or remembering. The test for citizenship is not an easy one.

“What makes our classes special is the mentors,” Smith said. Most of the four or five present are volunteers from the church who faithfully come for two hours Saturday morning throughout the 10 to 12 weeks. They sit with the students to help them in understanding and writing the answers to the questions assigned each session. They sometimes meet with “their” student outside of class hours to help with English or citizenship application. For some of the mentors this is the first time they’ve gotten to know an immigrant.

Mentors help those with limited English ability. But even with a low level of English, the class brings better understanding to the language and to what they would face on the exam, motivating most to learn basic English before taking it. CCUMC has just started an English-as-a-Second Language class for those who wish to stay for another hour.

Over the five years of the class, about 100 students have passed through, some for a few weeks, some even taking extra sessions. Since then about 25 students have become citizens. The first one was a woman from Sri Lanka. The Rev. Kirkland Reynolds, the church’s pastor, announces when someone has become a new citizen, praising the person for the accomplishment and reminding the congregation of their part.

Jesu Gomez arrived from Mexico 25 years ago and has been working in construction for 20 years. “It’s the only job I’ve had,” he said. He has a wife and three children. “Becoming a citizen gives me better opportunities,” he said.

“We love our students,” Smith said. At the end of each “semester” they have an international pot luck lunch, with students bringing dishes from their birth countries. Though church membership hasn’t changed from the class attendees, “we’ve certainly widened and deepened the relationships of our members, introducing them to new cultures and the warmth of new friendships,” Smith said, and “we welcome the stranger.”