SNELLVILLE, Ga. (BP)--Yearly, thousands of immigrants come to the Atlanta metro area fleeing poverty, famine, disease, civil war, persecution and even death. If Paulette DeHart has her way, they'll learn English and meet Jesus Christ, not always in that order.
DeHart is a jointly funded North American Mission Board and Georgia Baptist Convention missionary and has served as the Georgia state convention's literacy missions consultant since 2003.
"What's so neat is that so many people come to the United States to improve their financial lot in life, but as one student said, they find the greatest treasure of all, the Lord Jesus Christ," DeHart said.
DeHart and her husband Greg are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.
As a Pleasanton, Calif., native who earned her B.A. degree in urban planning at California State University, literacy and teaching English to immigrants were not on DeHart's radar screen earlier in her life. She accepted Christ at 21 and prior to becoming a NAMB missionary worked as a personal financial analyst. How she got into literacy and teaching English as a Second Language could only be attributed to God.
Having moved to Snellville, Ga., east of Atlanta where her husband worked for BellSouth, Paulette was preparing to teach her children's Sunday School class lesson one Sunday morning. On her way to class, she met a Hispanic man, whom she welcomed in Spanish. During their brief conversation, the man asked DeHart if she knew of any English classes nearby.
"I found out there was nothing within 13 miles and soon sensed that the Lord wanted me to offer this kind of ministry," she recounted. Two years of indecision passed, but DeHart still sensed that God was calling her to teach English as a ministry.
Finally accepting God's call, DeHart initially believed she would have to return to college for a degree in teaching English as a Second Language. Not so.
"I stumbled across the Georgia Baptist Convention's 'English as a Second Language' workshop," said Paulette, who attended the 14-hour workshop held at an Atlanta area Southern Baptist church in 1991. The rest is history.
"We began a ministry at my church, Bethany Baptist in Snellville, that touched the lives of hundreds of people from dozens of different countries, including the Hispanic man whom the Lord used to plant the seed of this ministry in my heart," she said.
When it comes to literacy ministry, DeHart said most Southern Baptists think only of English as a Second Language (ESL), which involves teaching foreign-born adults who want to learn conversational English.
"That's our strength in Georgia, but there are four other important tracks we also teach," she said.
Those tracks are:
-- Adult Reading and Writing (ARW), which involves tutoring adults who are either illiterate, functioning non-readers, or those who are seeking to pass the GED test;
-- Tutoring Children and Youth (TCY), a ministry which tutors children and/or youth needing help with their schoolwork to enable them to succeed and remain in school until graduation;
-- "Alfalit" (ALF), a ministry that involves the teaching of illiterate Spanish-speaking persons how to read and write in Spanish so they can read the Bible in their heart language; and
-- English as a Foreign Language (EFL), which involves teaching conversational English during short-term mission trips abroad.
DeHart said others seeking assistance from the ministry include advanced English speakers who may be working on dissertations in college but who still want to polish their pronunciation or understand some of the expressions or idioms that Americans use in everyday language but are strange to foreigners, such as "bouncing a check."
Why should Southern Baptists be involved in the ministry of teaching English to immigrants?
"First, the opportunity is tremendous," DeHart said. "The Lord is really bringing tremendous amounts of people to our shores, even with the economic downturn.
"The Lord has changed Christians' hearts to have hearts of compassion, and we want to reach people," DeHart said. "I love Henry Blackaby's statement: 'See what the Lord is doing and join Him.' It's an opportunity to be able to develop a relationship with an individual or a group through teaching English as a Second Language or the other literacy tracks and then share very naturally Jesus' love for them."
For DeHart's dozens of students and the state of Georgia, the practical benefits of learning English are obvious.
"Adult literacy is a huge problem in Georgia and in the Southeast," she said. "Most people think there aren't any literacy problems in the U.S., but there are indeed people who graduate from high school who are still semi-literate, sometimes illiterate. The numbers are huge. And even for those with a ninth-grade education, just because they have a ninth-grade education doesn't mean they can read and write on a ninth-grade level.
"Such people are not able to progress or be promoted on their jobs and can't provide for their families. That leads to divorce and many other dysfunctions within the family. So the ramifications are many."
What does the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering do for DeHart and her ministry?
"The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering has provided the finances for Southern Baptists to 1) have a national literacy missions missionary within the North American Mission Board, who developed invaluable training methods and manuals; and 2) enables Baptists to have a few literacy missionaries such as myself to encourage the growth of the ministry within Georgia and other states.
"We can't let people fall through the cracks," DeHart said. "Many of the people who come to us for adult reading and writing are Americans who have already received the Lord but they can't read His Word. They are probably not going to grow in the Lord if they can't read His Word. Sometimes they're so embarrassed by the fact they can't read, they dare not go to Sunday School fearing that they may be asked to read. So lack of literacy is keeping many of our own Americans from growing spiritually."
Stressing she's not the only Southern Baptist involved in literacy in Georgia, DeHart said there are almost 1,300 literacy volunteers throughout the state. Just in Georgia, more than 5,500 students from 88 countries are taught to read and write English each year by literacy ministry volunteers. And many more volunteers are needed.
"Some people may think they don't have the ability to take part in this ministry," DeHart said. "The majority of the people who teach English as a Second Language here in Georgia are not professional teachers, much less English teachers. They just need to be able to speak everyday English. It doesn't take a degree at all -- just a 14½-hour workshop that will equip you with all the tools you need to get started."
DeHart and her now-retired husband Greg have two daughters, Jessica and Emily. The DeHarts are members of Westside Baptist Church in Snellville, Ga.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net