Written by Richard Greene on February 9, 2024.
Connections matter — and can reap eternal dividends. Just ask Carrie Afanador and Amy Todd-Paine. They’ll gladly tell you, as will the couple dozen long-standing volunteers who minister alongside them.
Carrie serves as director of Immigrant Connection of the High Country. It’s a recognized office of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that provides low-cost legal consultations to people seeking assistance with immigration issues. It recently celebrated its first anniversary.
“We exist to provide legal, language and citizenship resources to the immigrant community in North Carolina,” explains Carrie, who is a DOJ-accredited representative. Her team includes an administrative assistant who does interpretation and translation and a second DOJ representative.
Over the past year, Immigrant Connection of the High Country has served more than 200 clients from 32 countries. Many work areawide in construction or in the hospitality and Christmas tree farm industries, but some are professors at Appalachian State University. Most live in Watauga County and Wilkes County, but they’re also from Caldwell, Ashe, and Avery counties and as far away as Rocky Mount and Charlotte.
An Open Door for the Gospel
There’s also a spiritual dimension. Immigrant Connection of the High Country is a ministry of Alliance Bible Fellowship. “Our elders oversee us, at least until we attain our own non-profit status and can form a separate board of directors,” Carrie says. “We’ve been able to walk with them on their journey and share that God loves them, that they’re valuable, and that our church cares about them.”
Under this umbrella is a Teaching English as a Second Language class. It meets on Wednesday evenings from 6:00 to 7:30 in The Commons. Its name is appropriate: Conversation Connections.
Non-native English speakers and church volunteers first gather for snacks and coffee or tea and then jump into the weekly lessons. Ideally, they’re paired one-on-one, but sometimes one volunteer works with two students. On average, 10 to 20 people of varying ages come each week. At the outset, the predominant language spoken by the students was Spanish, but last semester, Chinese took that spot. Other languages have included Japanese and Haitian Creole.
This is where Amy enters the picture. She develops the lesson plans and presents them each week—then lets the students loose to practice their English language skills with the volunteers. Many of the people have no background in English, while some have become quite proficient.
“We try to keep it as practical as possible, often based off of felt needs,” Amy says. “I have asked them, ‘What is most difficult for you?’ Then I come up with lesson plans that help them directly.”
ESL Out in the Community
A separate outdoor ESL class will be offered on Wednesday evenings this summer for workers at a Christmas tree farm in Avery County, continuing with the format used last summer. The class is promoted as “Tamales and English.”
Amy says that these classes afford the volunteers missional opportunities to cultivate relationships with the students and to interweave the Good News of the hope and love of Jesus Christ into conversations as the Holy Spirit opens doors.
“We are people called to love the immigrant in the name of Jesus,” she says. “We want them to feel safe and welcomed, and to know that they can find Christ-centered community here.”
Christian Holidays and the Gospel
Amy also shared that the ESL students want to know more about how Americans celebrate “high religious days.” That creates natural possibilities to present the Gospel. Last Easter, Amy sent the students into the kitchen, gave them each an apron, and they practiced reading a recipe in English. What did they bake? Resurrection or Easter rolls.
“When you bake them, there’s a marshmallow inside, but when they cook, it disappears,” Amy explains. “We talked about how Jesus died on the cross and was buried, but when He was resurrected, the tomb was empty, just like the marshmallow was gone. Many of the people thought Easter was just about candy, eggs and the Easter bunny. But on this evening, they heard why Jesus died and how God raised Him from the dead. Then I followed up with an invitation to personally trust and follow Jesus.”
A Volunteer’s Perspective
Rebecca Landholm, who serves as a volunteer, relishes learning about other cultures and helping the students assimilate better into the High Country.
“I enjoy this ministry so much,” she says. “I love getting to know them and forming relationships with several of the returning students.”
Referencing a Chinese couple who are expecting their first child in June, Rebecca says, “Our ESL class is preparing to have a baby shower for them. This is something new and exciting for them, as they do not have this ritual in China. We ESL volunteers are thrilled to share this experience with them!”
It’s these kinds of relationships, Rebecca says, that foster trust, intimacy, vulnerability, and an understanding that ultimately leads to sharing the Gospel message.
Engaging in Christian Community
Some of the individuals who have come to the classes have begun attending church on Sunday mornings. One of them is Felipe (a pseudonym). He’s from an indigenous people group in Central America. He has been coming to church for several months, and Francisco Afanador, Carrie’s husband, has been helping him understand the sermon. Felipe also attends the bilingual Global Connection Group during the second service in Room 302, which Francisco and Carrie lead. “God has been working in Felipe’s life, and Francisco has been walking with him through that,” Carrie said. “Praise the Lord, Felipe committed his life to Jesus and wants to follow Him.”
A new ESL class will begin on February 21, and will run through May 8. More volunteers are needed. “We have great volunteers,” Amy says. “They do not have to be experienced in teaching English as a Second Language, but they must take the special training that we provide prior to the class.” Volunteers will be notified as to when that will be offered.