Editor’s note: Stephanie DenBraber served as the Director of and a teacher in the Speak Easy! Spanish program at the elementary of FRCS for over 10 years. While she is no longer with the school, she and her passion for the Spanish-speaking community around the world left an indelible mark on our school.
For the last ten years, I have served as Director of the elementary Speak Easy! Spanish program at Front Range Christian School. Long have I prayed for an opportunity to be involved with the growing Spanish-speaking community of Denver. Recently, that prayer has been answered by the presence of a new ministry in West Denver, Cascade of Hope, shepherded by Pastors Victor and Sandra Perez.
Cascade of Hope provides English language and computer classes, citizenship training, and community to adult learners from all over Latin America. I have served as a teacher in the eight-week ESL sessions provided each fall and spring at Mountain View Community Church in West Denver. Serving alongside English language learners provides an intimate invitation to wrestle with the deep human need for understanding, compassion, and empathy.
During Front Range’s most recent VCI symposium in January, 2016, Ryan Taylor encouraged our community to shift our thinking subtly, yet profoundly, about our acts of service by changing the prepositions we use when we talk about them. Rather than thinking of service as something we do to or for others, he challenged us to engage service with an attitude of participating with and as those we serve. When we consider ourselves in humility and with a deep awareness of our own spiritual poverty and need of mercy, the experience of service becomes much richer and more profound.
Over the years, I have served on many mission projects in which the focus was, indeed, to do service to and for others. I do not believe that is bad or wrong; however, it often left me struggling with the rationale behind this approach. As I wrestled with my own inner poverty, the idea that I could bring something of value to another human being didn’t rest well with me. I continually left my mission experiences with the feeling that I gained so much more than I gave, that certainly I had been blessed more than I had been a blessing.
After hearing Ryan speak at the VCI symposium, I began to view my work at Cascade of Hope differently. Of course I was bringing my skills as a teacher to my ESL classes each week. Of course I was participating in this act of service in order to help my students learn and become more confident in their English language fluency. In that way, I did perform this act of service for and to my students. However, the miracle and mystery of our call to service is that it never stops there.
As I began to engage this service in a way that is both with and as my students, I saw myself as a limited language learner who needed to grow alongside my students. Each week, I not only grew in my own Spanish skills, but also in becoming more culturally sensitive and aware of the people I was teaching. I was moved by my students’ life-stories of hardship, struggle, missing family members, hard work and labor for low pay. They became people that I deeply respected and I longed to understand more of their life journeys. They were no longer statistics that needed my help, but rather human beings with names, families, heartaches, laughter, and joy to share.
This paradigm influences the Spanish department at FRCS. We believe our students should be exposed to Spanish outside of the classroom. Each Spanish class at the junior/senior high level is required to participate in at least one excursion during the school year that encourages interaction with the Spanish-speaking community in Denver. Excursions include visiting a Spanish-speaking church, shopping at a Mexican grocery store, and dining at an authentic restaurant.
This year, we invited the Spanish 4 students to participate in the ESL classes with me at Cascade of Hope for one evening. Early on a Tuesday evening in March, several students piled into my van and we headed north on Sheridan toward the church. I was struck by how quiet the students were on the way. When we arrived in the parking lot, a few even asked if they had to go inside. They were clearly nervous and uncertain about this experience, which I assured them was a very normal response when entering a new situation.
Once inside, we introduced the students to Pastor Victor and the other volunteer ESL teachers. Then we assigned them to rotate through the three levels of classes–beginner, intermediate and advanced. Our FRCS students sat down at the tables alongside the ESL students. They participated in the class activities. They helped with pronunciation. They shared their own struggles with the English language and had their eyes opened to just how complex English can be. They were reminded that their language breaks more rules than it follows, and were surprised by the particular words and phrases that the ESL students found challenging. And, during the break between class sessions, they tried out their own imperfect Spanish over pizza and lemonade.
The car ride home was much noisier than the ride there. Each of the Spanish 4 students had a moment to share about how their perspectives began to change that night. They had seen that the ESL students were as nervous to have them come as they were to visit. They had shared a common space in the church as “brothers and sisters” in the same family of Christ. And they had taken turns being experts and novices in the different languages. In essence, the Spanish 4 students had seen that they, just as much as the ESL students, were human beings in need of understanding, compassion, and empathy.
Each day, we all have the opportunity to go out our front door to enter the Great Adventure that is following Jesus. In so venturing, there is no guarantee that we will return the same as when we left. When we encounter Christ face to face, in the faces of those we serve with and as, we are transformed, bit by bit, into the likeness of the One whom we are called to serve with our very lives. And perhaps it is in giving ourselves away to whatever service Christ calls us that we truly find ourselves, and count ourselves the most blessed of all.