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His love for Chinese food led to her class for immigrants

DECATUR, Ill. (BP)–The Chinese went in search of the holy family last Christmas and found them in Menards home improvement store.
It’s strange, but true.
A group of Chinese students cut through the hardware section to see Jesus, Mary and Joseph plus assorted shepherds and angels.
The divine company was, of course, only the plastic version designed for the front yard nativity market, but teacher Kay Antrim was on hand to explain the subtleties of the western festive experience.
“We always teach the secular and sacred sides of holidays like Christmas,” Antrim said. “And we like to take our students out to get as much hands-on experience as possible.”
The students are immigrants who work at Chinese restaurants in Decatur, Ill., and are benefiting from an extraordinary outreach program of the city’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. Staffed by volunteers, the program teaches both conversational English and survival skills for the American culture.
“We enjoy going on trips to stores,” said Tony Zheng, 23, a waiter at Mongolian Garden who’s been in class since it started in 1995. “It helps us to understand; English is hard to learn.”
“But we have good teachers,” added 26-year-old fellow student Chen Qi Chun, a waiter at First Wok who’s been in class for a year.
Chen and Tony are part of a 10-strong student body, including two women, who all work at First Wok or Mongolian Garden. “We’ve had students from other restaurants, too, but they tend to come and go as their jobs change,” said Antrim, 54.
“We’ve also tried to interest other foreign workers — like from Mexican restaurants — although we’ve had no luck yet.”
The bridge to the Orient, however, remains strong. Its foundations were laid in 1995 by Tabernacle’s associate pastor, Dale Davenport, and his passion for Chinese food.
“I’d eat regularly at the Mongolian Garden and got to know the staff there,” Davenport said. “We’d get to talking about what it was like for them here.”
A picture emerged of hard-working people whose families may have pooled every penny they had to give one of their own a chance to make it in America. Contacts enabled them to get jobs at local restaurants, but unable to speak the language well or even drive, the new immigrants remained strangers in a strange land.
“This was a door of opportunity for us,” said Davenport, 47, director of Tabernacle’s education department. “We could share Christ and at the same time teach the skills they need to do better here.”
All Davenport needed was an instructor — and it just so happened that Antrim, a Tabernacle member for 18 years, was away in China teaching English.
“I’ve always wanted to teach abroad,” said Antrim, a former Decatur elementary school teacher who took early retirement.
“I flew to China in July of ’95 and spent six weeks teaching conversational English on a visit arranged by Cooperative Services International, a church organization, and the Chinese-based Amity Foundation; it was a wonderful experience.”
Davenport approached Antrim upon her return, and the teaching program was born, the free classes getting under way in September. Church members visiting restaurants encouraged students to attend, and Antrim now distributes brochures advertising the program.
School’s in session from September until May, with 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. lessons at the church on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The times are designed to fit around restaurant work schedules, and students get lifts to and from class by a network of Tabernacle helpers.
“It’s a privilege to be involved in this,” said Jerry Gandy, 57, church maintenance man and a volunteer driver for the program.
“One student even got me a gift last Christmas, and I was quite taken by that — it’s nice to know they think of me as a friend.”
Friendliness is a hallmark of the classes, which open with a prayer. Christian principles are taught, with Scripture used to help boost English comprehension.
More than 20 students, ranging in age from 18 to 47, have been helped since Tabernacle’s program started.
“A lot of students are very receptive to our Christian message, and we’ve had several who’ve come to church services,” Antrim said.
A strong emphasis of every class is mastering practical language and life skills. Antrim draws up the curriculum using materials from expert sources like Oxford University Press and focuses on illustrating lessons with plenty of pictures and examples.
The teacher is assisted by Barbara Green, a retired personal banker from Magna Bank, who has taught in the program for eight months but had never done anything like this before.
“Very rewarding but hard work,” said Green, 56. “There are so many confusing idioms for our students to learn.”
Antrim agrees and thinks of a quick example — describing a rich man as a “high roller,” for instance.
“The students at first think it’s someone who’s high and also rolling,” Antrim said. “We have to explain everything.”
Classwork is interspersed with field trips like the Menards nativity experience. Many students have no idea how an American shop works, and they get to tour furniture stores, department stores, banks and the library.
“Decatur businesses have been very cooperative,” Antrim said.
A graduation ceremony is held in the spring, and students receive certificates confirming their achievements.
Those who stay can continue their education and there are always willing hands to teach new practical skills.
“Pastor Davenport has previously taught five of our students how to drive,” Antrim said. “And my husband, Charles, a financial planner with American Express, assisted with advice on insurance and buying a car.”
It’s all part of lifting up the students, helping them make the most of their new lives, Antrim said. “We’re working to make them feel comfortable.
“And we want them to feel the love of the American people toward them.”

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  • Tony Reid