Diana Bridges (in the green shirt) is the ESL Director at Woodland Baptists in San Antonio

Happy Friday everyone! I hope that everyone is having a great week and happily preparing for summer this year, whatever that may look like. We are starting off June with another installment of our What’s Your Story series with a story from Diana Bridges, an ESL Director at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio. Enjoy a little insight from Diana on her take on ESL ministry and misunderstandings.

If you were to ask me one thing that I’ve learned after years of international ministry, it’s this: Meaningful things often happen when we’re gathered around tables. It’s always true for potluck day, the happiest day of each session, which is once every five weeks for our daytime students. It’s also true when we have hour-long conversation groups for intermediate and advanced students each Wednesday.

One particularly important set of conversations happened after about a hundred of us attended a local cultural event. We were hosted by a very kind group. They divided us into more manageable groups, gave us a wonderful tour, and fed us. I learned that one of the tour leaders had said something that was unkind and completely inappropriate. She told a woman in hijab that she shouldn’t be wearing that here in the United States–and maybe she shouldn’t be here at all because of terrorism. The rest of our hosts were embarrassed and very apologetic, wanting to make everything right. The students most affected by the comments were dismayed to be viewed so negatively. As one had said to the offending party, “You say these things, but you don’t even know me.”

The next day we gathered around tables in small conversation groups to answer two questions: When have you been misunderstood? When have you misunderstood someone else? The stories poured out. “I was trying to help an older woman in a wheelchair at the grocery store. Her husband came around the corner and shouted at me.” “I have trouble remembering that Americans don’t stand close to each other in lines. When I do what’s normal in my country, they think I’m crowding them or that I’m trying to get the PIN number for their debit card.” “I’m from Iraq and work in a lab. My coworkers were keeping their distance until one asked me, ‘Why do you wear black every day? Are you part of ISIS?’ I was so shocked I couldn’t speak at first. I don’t wear hijab and one of my parents is Shia, so ISIS would be happy to kill me. I explained
that I was wearing black because my grandmother had recently died.”

These stories were from one small group in a room full of small groups. That day I vowed to ask those questions much more often. I wouldn’t have heard those important stories if I hadn’t asked. Misunderstandings are normal, but they multiply when people substitute judgement for curiosity and honest questions.

Misunderstandings are common, even amongst English speakers, but when working in ESL ministry doing our best to help students overcome these misunderstandings, make themselves understood, and make sure that we are not subconsciously contributing to the problem through our own biases or lack of experience. Understanding the types of misunderstandings and judgements that our students face is incredibly important to understanding our students, welcoming them, and guiding them towards their goals.

When have you been understood? Have you ever had a misunderstanding with a student? Tell us about it! Email us at info@literacyconnexus.org. We would love to hear from you! As always, blessings and happy teaching.