The Language of Love

Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo is a destination for the city"s international population because of its bustling ESL ministry.

AMARILLO—For many, fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission means global travel.

But for some, like Ann and Nolan Clark of Amarillo’s Paramount Baptist Church, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth can be across the back fence or in a classroom next door.

For almost two decades, the Clarks have spearheaded the church’s ministry efforts aimed at those for whom English is a second language—or ESL in shorthand. It’s international missions, right in the church’s backyard.

“That’s exactly what we consider it, our mission,” Ann Clark said. “Some other people have said that we did not go to them, so God sent them to us to share the gospel. We feel like that’s our responsibility: To help them learn how to live here and as they learn the language, to be able to share Christ with them.”

This year, 304 students are enrolled in 26 morning and evening classes at Paramount, representing 27 countries and 17 languages. Over the years, some 2,500 students representing 72 ethnicities have been students in the ESL effort at the church.

Over the course of a year more than 100 church volunteers keep the ESL ministry humming.

The story began in 1995 with one Chinese couple and a Bible study in the Clark home.

“His wife would not come because she felt that her English wasn’t very good,” Ann Clark said.

That sparked an idea. Ann Clark began searching for an ESL class in nearby Canyon and in Amarillo, but couldn’t find one to fit the woman’s schedule. Ann Clark then learned of ESL training through the North American Mission Board. She took the course, then began an ESL class at First Baptist of Canyon. Two years later, the Paramount initiative began. 

Paramount and Amarillo mirror the rest of Texas, said Terry Coy, director of missions for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. About 35 percent of Texans, more than one-third of the state’s population, speak a language other than English. Sixteen percent of Texans are foreign born, Coy said.

“When immigrants arrive in the United States, one of the first things many of them want to do is learn English,” Coy said. “They know learning English will speed up their ability to get a job, a driver’s license and admission to higher education, and tap into other advancement opportunities.

“Churches have a unique opportunity to serve people in a practical way through ESL and to introduce them to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the process,” Coy said. “The result can be new disciples of Jesus and new churches planted.”

The Paramount ministry moves beyond teaching English, the Clarks said, helping ESL students with everyday challenges, from help with getting utilities turned on to trips to the doctor’s office to American citizenship. Paramount conducts citizenship classes annually.

As part of the teaching, instructors search for Scripture that connects with everyday life, Ann Clark said.

“Each teacher within their class shares a Bible verse that relates to what is being taught. Sometimes you really have to look to find a verse that relates to going to the doctor or things at a school or shopping to buy a coat. When you find the right one, then that helps those students know that God is interested in every part of their life. That’s been a blessing to me, to stay in Bible study and find verses that they can connect with for their own life.”

She added: “It’s made us more aware of how important Bible study is in our own life. You can’t share something with somebody else that you don’t know and experience yourself. So it’s very important for us to stay in Bible study, not just teaching but learning every day too. That connects with something we do in our classes every week. We have a time when we have refreshments and a short devotional where Christ’s message is presented.”

At Paramount, about 20 percent in the ESL classes are married couples. But the lessons taught in those courses impact families, which in turn can reach across the world.

Nolan Clark recalled one couple in the class, the parents of a young boy who is now grown and active in the Baptist ministry on his college campus.

“The influence on the family carries over when you help them learn about English and learn about Christ,” Nolan Clark said.

As for the global reach, Ann Clark remembered a student who was traveling to Iran to visit family with her Bible in tow.

“She and her husband became Christians after they came here,” Ann Clark said. “When she went back to visit her family, she took a Bible with her. But she knew she couldn’t take it into the country. So somehow she got it into the airport waiting room and left it there, praying that someone would pick it up and read it.”

Conversions to Christianity among those from Muslim or Buddhist backgrounds are deeply rooted, Ann Clark said.

“Especially in the Muslim community,” Ann Clark said. “They have to consider the ostracism of their families and sometimes the threat of death. It’s something they take very seriously when they decide to follow Jesus.”

The ESL ministry at Paramount has enriched the life of the church, Pastor Gil Lain said. The church recently added an Arabic-speaking pastor whose goal is to reach Amarillo’s Muslim community. “This will go hand-in-glove with our ESL.”

“ESL allows us to do mission work with people from other countries in our own city,” Lain said. “Paramount is extremely involved in international mission work through our giving, praying and going. There have been years when we sent around 100 people to five or six different countries.

“Through ESL, we have well over 100 members touching the lives of over 300 people from 25-30 different countries each semester,” Lain said. “So what ESL does is help us follow Christ’s command to reach people all over the world.”

Their work with internationals has reminded the Clarks of the simplicity of the gospel.

“One thing that has really impacted me is that we tend as Americans to make the gospel very theoretical and detailed. But when you start working with these internationals and start trying to explain it in simpler terms, we realize that the gospel message is very simply stated by Jesus and it can be comprehended by anybody if you just explain the simple things that Jesus taught,” Nolan Clark said. “That to me has been kind of a change in my life—to go back and look at the very basics of what we believe and why we believe those and make them very simple. It’s really about love and caring and relationships.”

That Christ’s love transcends any language barrier is at the heart of the ESL ministry, Nolan Clark said. Cultural and linguistic walls tumble as relationships are built over time. Some of the students are refugees, some have endured persecution. As a result, trust is in short supply.
“Go back and think of the first tenet of Campus Crusade for Christ’s Four Spiritual Laws: ‘God loves you,’” Nolan Clark said. “That’s one of the main things we try to teach and demonstrate to our students is that God loves them. Once they realize that God does love them, then they’re ready to move on to understanding how they can have that love and have eternal life.”

Relationships matter most in effectively conveying that message, the Clarks said.

“We should follow the example that Jesus gave us of meeting the needs of people first,” Ann Clark said. “Sometimes their needs are so great that they can’t hear what you are saying when you tell them that Jesus loves them. We have to show them that we care about them first and develop a trusting relationship with them before we can share the plan of salvation.”

And of course, the Clarks said, the greatest reward comes when one of the students comes to faith in Christ and experiences God’s love firsthand. Ann Clark told the story of a young Middle Eastern woman who had moved to Amarillo from another Texas city where she had attended an ESL class at a Baptist church.

“The people at the Baptist church in the other town were so nice to me,” she told the Clarks. “They helped me and accepted me and made me feel welcome. I didn’t think I would ever find that kind of people again. You accept me the same way. I think there is something special about people at a Baptist church.”

Most Read

Jesus film entirely in sign language is historic first for Deaf community

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (BP)—When Joseph Josselyn of “Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film” lost his hearing as a toddler, life became “a little painful at times” as he grew, accepted Jesus and worshipped God in the hearing …

Stay informed on the news that matters most.

Stay connected to quality news affecting the lives of southern baptists in Texas and worldwide. Get Texan news delivered straight to your home and digital device.