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Language of love spoken through FriendSpeak

Hundreds of U.S. churches help internationally born neighbors improve their English skills by reading the Bible.

LONG BEACH, Calif. — In this diverse Pacific Coast community, eavesdropping on your neighbor’s conversation can be a challenge.

Hispanics and Asians comprise a majority of the 475,000 residents of the busy shipping port, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles.

People here speak a multitude of languages.

“Anywhere you go, you have no idea what the language of the people next to you is going to be ” said Kyle Parker, connections minister for the Long Beach Church of Christ. “It might be French, Spanish, German.

“I heard a guy speaking Gaelic at the beach one day,” Parker added. “Irish Gaelic.”

The Long Beach church has embraced the city’s international flavor as an outreach opportunity, developing relationships with immigrants from all over the world.

The tool used to connect with those immigrants: FriendSpeak, which helps foreign-born neighbors improve their English skills by reading the Bible.

Kyle Parker, Eydee Van Atta and David Cron work with the FriendSpeak ministry of the Long Beach Church of Christ in California. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

• • •
FriendSpeak, the domestic version of a popular international ministry, started in the early 1990s.

American mission workers enthusiastic about Let’s Start Talking’s foreign success asked why the simple approach of one-on-one instruction using the Bible could not be tried at home.

Ben Woodward“FriendSpeak continues to grow steadily,” said Ben Woodward, director of the Hurst, Texas-based program. “Of course, I believe this is one of the most effective outreach programs in churches today — in our fellowship or any other.”

An estimated 350 to 400 congregations across the nation sponsor FriendSpeak ministries, Woodward said, with an additional 15 to 20 churches trained in the program each year.

“We are often finding out about new FriendSpeak churches that we didn’t know existed,” he said.

 • • •
At the Southside Church of Christ in Lawrence, Kan., a Chinese father, mother and 10-year-old son were baptized recently as a result of FriendSpeak.

“We learned to love this family right away,” said Martha Elford, who helps coordinate the church’s FriendSpeak program. “Their hearts were so open, and their desire to know God was so passionate.”

The family has returned to China, where they “plan to establish a home church and share the Gospel with all who will listen,” Elford said.

FriendSpeak volunteers with the Southside Church of Christ pose with a family of three baptized before their return home to China. Pictured, from left, are Martha Elford, Mary Beth Petr, mother April, Dave Petr, 10-year-old son Ed and father Woody. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MARTH ELFORD)

North of Dallas, the High Pointe Church of Christ in McKinney, Texas, hosts 30 to 40 international students for FriendSpeak each Sunday afternoon. A team also works with 20 to 25 students at the University of Texas at Dallas each Wednesday night.

“I am currently working with a Hindu reader from India, a Buddhist reader from China and a Muslim mother and son from Iran,” High Pointe preacher Brad Cox said.

The video below (from 2015) highlights FriendSpeak at the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia.

• • •


Back in Long Beach, a banner along heavily traveled Atlantic Avenue advertises “FREE English Practice” at the 125-member church.

“People see it as they drive by on the bus or in a car,” elder David Cron said. “So we started getting a lot of calls.”

David CronTwenty Long Beach church volunteers — from 17-year-old Zoey Jablonski to 86-year-old Patsy Whitson — meet with 25 readers at various times throughout the week.

Nations represented include Brazil, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Iran, Mexico, Peru, South Korea and Vietnam, said Cron, a former missionary to Liberia.

“I really appreciate FriendSpeak because it helps me understand and speak the language better,” said Salvador Lozano, a 26-year-old reader from Spain. “I am very grateful for the time spent to study together.”

Many immigrants live in ethnocentric neighborhoods surrounded by people who speak their native language, Cron said. They welcome an opportunity to practice English.

“These people already speak enough English to carry on a basic conversation and to build from there,” said Cron, who speaks Spanish and offers a separate Wednesday night class for eight immigrants not up to that level.

Eydee Van Atta“With FriendSpeak, we read a passage from Luke in a simplified translation, and we talk about the vocabulary,” he added. “So usually, there are some words to explain, and we listen to them read.”

The Bible reading can lead to conversations about God and Jesus, said Long Beach member Eydee Van Atta.

And often, FriendSpeak readers end up visiting the church.

“You look down the row, and we are not all the same color or age or wealth,” Van Atta said. “That makes them feel comfortable, and I think that’s why they like coming back.”

Said Cron: “We’ve always had quite a bit of diversity in this congregation. But I think we see a lot more new faces as a result of this.”

On a recent “FriendSpeak Sunday” at the Long Beach church, seven people lined up on stage.

All read the same passage from the Bible — but each did so in a different language.

“It made me think of Revelation and every tribe and every nation glorifying the Father,” Parker said. “That was amazing.”


FriendSpeak mixes Jesus, conversation

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