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The “life cube” assignment elicits lots of personal stories, irrepressible laughter, shared community and, for students who gathered on a very rainy recent Thursday at St. Paul’s Church in Tustin, the opportunity to practice their English conversational skills.

From Yolanda, at 21, to Bob, at 83, the students attending weekly English as Second Language (ESL) classes have varying life experiences and conversational skill levels. Each new fold into cube shapes reveals a new question and additional opportunities to share, such as: “What do you want to learn about?”

“English,” the eight students chime in together, laughing. They hail from China, Korea and Iran, where many led accomplished lives. There are jazz dancers and choreographers, opera singers, students, even the former head of an atomic regulatory commission among the program’s students, according to Carol Penn, a St. Paul’s parishioner who co-directs and coordinates the morning program and also helps students prepare for citizenship classes. Some are seeking political asylum; student’s names have been changed to protect their identities.

“In a truly welcoming and richly blessed community, we help adults become fluent English speakers, and we do what we can to assist them in their adjustment to the demands of a challenging new culture,” Penn said. Facility in the language is one of the most difficult challenges for the newly-arrived, she said. Currently, St. Paul’s program has about 93 people attending a variety of weekly classes and 17 active volunteer tutors.

“In addition to ESL and citizenship prep classes, this assistance takes other forms: referrals to stronger academic programs at the local adult school or community college, help getting a driver’s license, referral to legal advice from Catholic Charities, to name a few of my tasks this week,” she said.

ESL classes are offered elsewhere throughout the diocese, including the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), a ministry of the diocese, and for the past 11 years at Church of the Transfiguration in Arcadia, according to the Rev. Julie Bryant, rector.

In Arcadia, the free, year-round classes are attended by about 20 adult students, many from Taiwan, mainland China, Korea, Japan and Brazil. Students purchase copies of the curriculum, and the parish funds copies for the facilitators. Bryant said the curriculum includes two publications, from both Taiwanese and U.S. media outlets. It involves practice reading in the form of short stories, poetry, news articles and outreach-related publications.

Sue Reinecke, who has volunteered with Transfiguration’s ESL classes for about seven years, said they also offer important opportunities for fellowship and culturally relevant celebrations such as Lunar New Year, Confucius Day and Epiphany.

At Transfiguration the students, mostly 40-somethings with high school-aged children, have taken field trips and organized refreshments and parties, she said.

The classes also include teaching life skills and awareness of cultural nuance, such as “interviewing for jobs, how to get along with peers and teachers” and “learning idioms and other U.S. colloquialisms,” said Reinecke.

“In our group, they are quite advanced in their understanding of the language. They read very well but don’t feel confident in casual conversation,” she said. “That’s what we can do to help to make them more comfortable in ordinary conversations.”

Often conversations focus on current or transitional life events — getting married, customs around childbirth, child-rearing.

Recently, the topic of discussion was wedding customs, “because different people were getting married and we talked about how they look at that, and the different generations and relationships between in-laws and newly-marrieds and oldly-marrieds and weddings.

“One student was saying in her country we know all about our children’s financial lives, what’s going on with them financially. Another was saying, ‘I don’t know a thing about my children. I just assume they’re doing fine or they’d let me know.’”

The ministry is rewarding and humbling, Reinecke added. “I learn so much more each week than I ever impart. It’s a real joy to know them and to get their perspectives on their lives and how they manage. I have such respect for them. They’ve taken on a big thing to come here.”

About 90 percent of her students say they immigrated to the United States because “they want their children to have a good education,” Reinecke said. “That’s a huge sacrifice to go to a new country, to learn a new language for the benefit of your children. I so admire them.”

She derives “great inspiration from these wonderful people. Most are very well educated and have had professional positions of one kind or another and have given it up to come here, but they are not allowed to pursue their professions here without a lot more study. They are such a great source of information and inspiration and, besides, they’re fun. We get to talk about wonderful things.”

Support develops from engaging one another and learning about their lives.she said. “Some have the most fascinating stories, not only about themselves but the generation before them and how their life was.
“We talk about cultural differences that can be quite astounding and expectations of what family does and expectations of how life is, and many other interesting things come up.”

Reinecke, a Transfiguration parishioner for 50 years, said the ministry “is very humbling. It’s enriched our community and we’re fortunate to have them. I appreciate the fact that the church supports these chances to know our neighbors.”

ESL classes also provide important support because limited conversational skills often translates into social and personal isolation, Reinecke said.

“They are more isolated in the community, in that they don’t have school or other activities in which to use the language and to become more involved in the community. So this is their chance to visit.”

Yolanda, who came alone from Iran to live with extended family members in Tustin, agreed.

“Last year, I moved to the United States. I was so depressed. I thought it was the end of the world. And Carol [Penn]has an open arm for me. She reacted very well and invited us to talk and practice and have participation and it gives me confidence. If I didn’t have these classes, I wouldn’t be the person I am. I would be depressed, shy.”

She befriended another student, Elizabeth, who arrived five months ago. “At first, she was like me; she was shy,” Yolanda said.

“She’s Korean. We are both from Asia; we can feel each other. I feel she needs someone to push her. She was a jazz dancer, a choreographer. She was shy to talk about it. I tell her it’s good, tell about your talents.

“There was a dance class in Tustin library and I begged her to come,” she added. “You are talented, I say. She and her husband were the only couple dancing very perfect. I was just standing in a corner looking at them.”

St. Paul’s Thursday morning class erupts in laughter as a practice conversation leads to a spontaneous demonstration. As students quizzed Bob about his favorite hobby, he jumped out of his chair to illustrate a step or two of his favorite dance style, the Jitterbug.

“I love to dance. My dancing very good,” said Bob. He mentioned another cultural adjustment: “In Shanghai, I dance a lot. In America, no dancing.”

At 83, he tells the other students he finds opportunities to dance by going to the gym to take Zumba classes.

“Sometimes I go to the senior center,” he added. “They have dancing. But it’s really slow and I don’t like it.

As the students practice inventorying their skills and gifts and discussing such idioms as “listening with heart,” “what are you cut out to do?” and “the gift of gab,” long-time ESL instructor Chris Pritchess pronounces that they all have the gift of gab, the ESL backbone, where rewards are reciprocal.

Conversation costs nothing but can bring you the world,” Pritchess tells the students. “I feel I haven’t traveled much, but you’ve brought me the world. Through you, I’ve traveled to every country. All of you are amazing.”