I was asked to say a few Words

I was asked to speak at a meeting of about 120 church members in January. It’s not something I’ve been asked to do before and not something I am particularly comfortable doing. I wasn’t sure that anything I had to say would be relevant, but I said I would and so I did. I’m saving my words here because they reflect a little on my life and this is my family history blog (well, sometimes it is family history; sometimes it absolutely is not). I was asked to say something about how ministries of the church had had an impact on my life –  or something like that…

I have been a member of FUMC for more than 30 years. During that time, my life has taken a few unexpected turns and at least a few of those surprises were the result of the ministries of this church.

About 12 ? years ago, I got a call from Cathy B., who leads the ESL program, asking me to please consider helping her. She knew several teachers would be absent from the next English as a Second Language class and was afraid she would be the only teacher. ESL was not on my radar and I don’t think Cathy and I had ever had a conversation about ESL. But I told her I’d come and at least be a warm body. The students kindly helped me and I had a great morning. Cathy asked if I wanted to come back and I did and I still do.

When Cathy explained the ESL program to me, she told me that yes, we teach English, but teaching English is not the most important thing we do. The most important thing we do is to provide a place of welcome – a place where our students can find friendship.

Teaching ESL has given me many gifts:
– The first to come to mind is the gift of Joy. There are no bad days.
– My nest was emptying at the time of Cathy’s call – teaching ESL gave me a new direction and sense of purpose.
– The world has become a much smaller place to me; but my circle has grown ever larger. I view the news and world events with different eyes and ears because of the people I have come to know.
– I was sick a few years ago and I wasn’t able to teach for about a year and a half. My students prayed for me; sent me emails and cards and gifts and carried me in love. What a gift! And when I returned, they were so protective of me!
– When I was sick I had a lot of time to talk to God and I would tell God how much I wanted to get back to my students. Cancer really messed with my brain and there were a lot of things I just couldn’t do – or do well: follow directions, make plans, organize ideas… Thank goodness Cathy B. prepares all the lessons and I just have to show up and teach. When I was well enough to teach – I could! It was my little miracle that this part of my brain still worked. The gifts of joy and purpose returned to me and helped me continue to heal.

I have also seen how the ESL program has had an impact on students – not just things like improving their English, or making friends, but changes of heart. It is not that uncommon to have students in a class who are from countries that share a bad history.

There was the student who told Cathy, “I have never liked people from X. In my country, we do not like people from X. But I came here and I met a friend. She is from X. Now I know that I do like people from X.”

Another student told me, “In my country, they tell us that Americans don’t like us. Christians don’t like us. But I come here and I know that is not true.”

You may not know that many of our students are temporary residents here and return to their home countries. I believe that the welcome our students experience here leaves a mark on them that they carry with them wherever they go when they leave us. We don’t know how God may be at work in and through them.

And I have to tell you that I believe our ministry of welcome is more important now than ever before.

I also want to mention the Mercy and Justice book discussions that I have participated in over the past couple of years. Cathy S. has chosen well when selecting books and has created a safe space to learn about and discuss sometimes difficult or uncomfortable topics. I have been challenged to examine my opinions and biases and how I fit into systems of justice and injustice. At some point, the challenge is to do more than read and discuss, and more than once this year, I found myself putting on my walking shoes and sunscreen and heading over to the Capitol to let my feet do the talking – not something I expected to be doing at this time in my life and something I clearly would not have done without my reading/talking/walking companions.

On January 29, 2015, our ESL class had just let out and we were cleaning up and saying our goodbyes when a large group began to trickle in from a rally on the steps of the Capitol. This is common during legislative sessions. It was apparent that this was a large group of Muslim Texans and, as we do, we greeted them and pointed them up the stairs to this room for their lunch and meeting. I didn’t know until after I left the building that this group had just been subjected to a threatening and hostile encounter during their rally. School children had been heckled while singing patriotic songs; a woman had rushed the stage and grabbed the microphone from a speaker; hateful words had been hurled at them. I was so glad that we were in the building to give them a warm greeting.

On January 31, 2017, I joined members of FUMC, other people of faith, and other concerned citizens on the south steps of the Capitol where we linked arms to form a circle of protection around our Muslim neighbors as they held their Muslim Capitol Day rally.

I can assure you, I did not see that coming.


ESL Book Club – Thunder Cake

Our book club read several books by Patricia Polacco last spring and we all fell in love with Patricia Polacco. I was not familiar with her book Thunder Cake when I found it at Half Price Books a few months ago. It looked like another good one, plus it included a recipe! If you are not familiar with the book, it is based on events from the author’s life and tells the story of how her Russian grandmother helped Patricia overcome her fear of thunderstorms.

Of course, I had to bake a Thunder Cake for book club. The skies were clear and sunny as I baked, so I guess it didn’t really qualify as a Thunder Cake. Oh well…

I didn’t have any secret-ingredient-fresh-off-the-vine-overripe tomatoes either, so I drained some canned tomatoes and pureed what I needed in the food processor. I made two single layer cakes instead of a two-layer as I thought it would be easier to transport and serve. The cake tasted just like a chocolate cake should, but I thought it was a little dry and crumbly. Maybe it was lacking the humidity and electricity a thunderstorm would add to the mix. It rose very nicely – maybe due to the acidity of the tomatoes?

As I was preparing a few discussion questions, I realized what a good lesson in verbs this book provides. Patricia Polacco gives us so many verbs to help us hear the thunder and see the lightning and hear her grandmother’s voice. I made a list of most of the verbs used in the story and added a few discussion questions just to have some talking points to fall back on if needed.

The cake was a fun surprise and no one could taste the secret ingredient. As we settled in with our wedges of cake, I went over the list of verbs as a pre-reading activity. Many, if not most, of the verbs were unfamiliar to my students.

As expected, everyone could relate to the story in one way or another. One student (from Ukraine) is Babushka to her grandson. Another student was reminded of her husband, who was a nervous, nail-biting child. Instead of helping him with his fears, his parents focussed only on his bad habit. A wife told how, during an eight-year war with a neighboring country, her husband would take their son to the basement when the daily bombing began. He had the gift of entertaining their son so that he was never afraid. Meanwhile, she was frozen with fear. Everyone agreed that Patricia’s Babushka is awesome and aspired to be like her.

This time I added a rating system at the end of the discussion questions. As I expected, everyone gave it 5 stars – because they always swear they love every book we read. After class, a student who had read the previous Patricia Polacco books, told me she loves her books so much that all of her books will get 5 stars from her.

There was one piece of cake left, so I took it over to my friend, Pastor Cathy. She knew that the cake had been baked under clear skies, so not really a Thunder Cake. She asked what fear I contemplated while baking it. Uh … None? In true pastor fashion, she “invited” me to give it some thought.

Here is what I prepared for discussion:

Thunder Cake
by Patricia Polacco

So many verbs! As I reread the book, I noticed how many different verbs the author used to make the story interesting and to help the reader “feel” and “hear” the story.

Instead of just using the verb said:

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
slit the sky

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
spread out the tablecloth

And a few interesting adjectives:
loud clap of thunder
worn hands
creased spot
jagged edge of lightning
secret ingredient

Discussion questions:

What is your first reaction to the story?

Does the story remind you of something in your life?

How did Patricia’s grandmother help her overcome her fear of thunderstorms?

Was Patricia only afraid of thunderstorms?

Has someone helped you overcome a fear?

Have you helped someone overcome a fear?

Have you overcome a fear on your own (without help)?

Do you have a recipe with a secret ingredient?

Is this a book you would like to share with a child you know? Why or why not?

How do you rate this story?


ESL Book Club – The Relatives Came

I am a volunteer teacher of English as a Second Language at the church I attend. I started a Book Club that meets for one hour once a week after our regular class to read and discuss books written for children that adults can enjoy.

I read the book to the students first so that they can just listen or read along and hear the book read with expression and correct pronunciation. After sharing initial reactions to the book, we read the book page by page around the table (if it is short enough). Then we discuss questions I have prepared or comments the students want to make. At least that’s what usually happens.

Even though it is fall, I thought that summer travels would still be fresh on our minds and chose a book about visiting relatives. This week’s book selection was a 1986 Caldecott Honor book, “The Relatives Came,” written by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Before reading the book, I gave the students a little background information about the author and illustrator to set the stage, including this quote from CliffsNotes: “Rylant’s grandparents’ four-room house was on a dirt road away from the main highway. They had no running water or electricity. The house was often shared with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Rylant’s grandparents grew and hunted most of the food they ate. Because the family had no car, Rylant never traveled very far from home.”

Students initially responded by sharing similar memories of family visits. Most looked back fondly on these occasions, but a couple had less than fond feelings about their experience visiting relatives when they were children.

One student paid particular attention to the illustrations and pointed out some things that we hadn’t noticed. Her favorite was the one that included a boy getting a haircut. I had not noticed the unhappy boy walking away who had already been in the barber’s chair. This was particularly funny to me because my husband’s grandfather was a barber and my husband and his brother and their boy cousins always got a haircut when they went to his house – whether they wanted one or not!

As we read around the table for our second time through the book, we stopped to discuss vocabulary and questions about meaning. These included:
station wagon
why did their station wagon smell like a real car?
ice chest
all the uses of “up” – up from Virginia, ate up, traveled up …
after a big supper two or three times around until we all got a turn at the table
in twos and threes
tend the garden

One student had read the book ahead of time and said that the first time through, he thought it was just an easy story and wasn’t very impressed. He read it a second time and paid more attention to the illustrations. By his third reading, he decided that it is a very good book.

The author writes this story with no proper names, no specified family relationships, and no dialog. It is the perfect vehicle for each of us to enter the story with our own memories, our own family names and relationships. We can recall the words and hugs we have experienced. And maybe even remember the smell of the station wagon as we traveled to visit relatives.

We gave “The Relatives Came” a thumbs up.

I brought a short list of questions for discussion and, since we had not been over any useful vocabulary for discussing books in over a year, I added a few of those too.

Discussion questions:

* Does the story remind you of an experience in your life?
* This book was recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book. This award is for books that combine excellent illustration with a story. How do the pictures help to tell the story?
* What is your opinion of the author’s writing style – no names, no dialog?
* Is this a book you would read to your child or grandchild? Why or why not?

Vocabulary for talking about books:

Author – a person who writes books, stories, or articles.
Illustrate – to explain or decorate a story or book with pictures
Illustrator – a person who adds pictures to explain or decorate a book or story
Fiction – written stories that are about people and events that are not real
Non-Fiction – writing that is about facts or real events
Characters – the people in a book or story
Setting – the time and place in which a story takes place. The setting can also include the mood and social environment.