When we moved from the United States to Australia, one of the potential challenges that faced me, my husband, and my children as immigrants to a new country was loneliness. Having left our close network of family and friends, we were moving to a city of millions of people—only a handful of which we knew. We were grateful to arrive at a church that thought of itself as a family, and through the kindness of those people, we did not feel alone.
Many immigrants are not so fortunate.
Whether by force or by choice, these are people who have left their home countries often give up strong communal ties. When the barrier of language is added to cultural and religious barriers, many immigrants suffer from intense loneliness. If one partner works for an English-speaking company and is able to learn the language quickly, while the other’s circles are limited primarily to home; if the children go to school and prefer to speak English and forget their native language, leaving the parents to experience a language barrier with their own family; if one family member has left their family to first make a way for the others to join him or her; these and many other common situations contribute to loneliness and isolation among immigrants.
For these kinds of situations, the creation of a space in a church to welcome and befriend immigrants can be a good and beautiful thing. My own church, McKinnon Reformed Presbyterian, has sought to be a place where immigrants can find a home. One of the ways we have done this is through a weekly English Conversation class.
The class, compared to other government-funded programs, is informal. The conversation varies between topics of interest and current events, and no homework is given. When able to meet in person, tea and coffee is served with a light snack or dessert.
For the first two years of classes, the group constantly changed. Many new people would join for a week or two, and regulars would leave after relocating or changing their employment or study situation. In the past year and a half, however, we’ve seen a steady attendance of a core group of learners.
In a season of unpredictability with the constantly changing COVID restrictions, the steadiness of this group has been a gift. A few weeks ago, I looked at the clock before beginning the lesson I’d prepared and realised that almost 45 minutes had passed since the class start time—45 minutes of casual conversation in English, over Zoom, between people from five different countries, of varying English language abilities—and I had not thought for a moment about how to move the conversation along or to coax out a shy learner.
For those looking for a number of converts and members added to the church roll, this program will likely be a disappointment. While several learners have come along to church events such as game nights and picnics, and one has been regularly attending our services since March this year, we have not yet seen a harvest for our efforts. Still, we know that caring for the souls and bodies of others is broader than preaching the gospel, and we know that we may be those who sow, not those who reap.
Laura Cerbus is originally from Western Pennsylvania, and was a member of Collage Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church. She now lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves, in a local revitalization in the McKinnon Reformed Presbyterian Church where she and her family are now members. She writes at lauracerbus.com.