September 17, 2020 was the date set for the beginning of class. In person. During the time of COVID. Janet Petrilli launched the English as a Second Language (ESL) class at Cornerstone Community Church in Joppa, Maryland. The free ESL class has been running every Thursday night since.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 5% of Harford County residents are foreign born (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/harfordcountymaryland). That’s about 14,000 people, and many speak English as a second language. Baltimore County is at 12% and Cecil County is at 3%. While immigrant children receive instruction and practice in both formal and conversational English in school, adult immigrants have an immediate need for instruction and practice in conversational English in order to communicate effectively, find a job, shop for groceries, or just enroll their children in school.
Janet and her team of six teachers are working to support these adult learners here in Joppa. She began to do this kind of work by volunteering with friends in an ESL ministry at a church in Timonium. When the opportunity to begin a similar ministry at Cornerstone arose, Janet did not immediately feel that she was supposed to lead the work. Eventually, “God laid it on my heart and said this is what I want you to do,” she recalls. She now serves as the Director of ESL at Cornerstone.
Preceding the class, a huge banner went up outside the church along Mountain Road in Joppa. Janet and her husband, Perry, also dropped off business cards and flyers up and down Route 1 – from Belair to Fallston – at apartment complexes, nail salons and shopping centers. This was the invitation to anyone interested to sign up for the ESL class.
Three months later, the free ESL class continues. Weekly sessions begin with the reading of a Bible verse. By reading the verse, students are practicing English out loud which is key to language acquisition. In this way, the class offers students an opportunity to grow their conversational English-speaking skills while at the same time learning about Christianity.
The group remains small with three students attending regularly now. One is from India, another is from Vietnam, and the third is from South America. Small numbers allow for relationships to be built between the instructors and their adult students because each of the three students has the individual attention of one of the teachers. Janet appreciates the intimacy of the classes and wishes to maintain that even as the numbers grow. With relationship building comes great joy.
“I like to hear them laugh,” Janet says. “Two of the students play off each other and Ann brought a puppet in once. That was so much fun.” Anne Lozier is one of the six instructors.
Janet has found that conversations have extended beyond the classroom. One student’s husband, a Sheikh, waits the two hours of class for his wife. He and Perry have had many conversations about faith.
There is a need for this type of ministry, a global pandemic notwithstanding. “There was a lot of planning back and forth and, even with COVID, we decided to start,” Janet says. The team is following all protocol, from mask wearing to social distancing and thoroughly cleaning after each session.
The class is open to anyone in Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties.
The details of the ESL class are:
Meeting Day/Time: Thursdays, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Childcare: Provided for ages 5 – 10
Contact: 410-861-0471; ESL@cornerstonejoppa.org.
View the ESL page for more information