Welcome to the first in a series of monthly newsletters featuring members of COS who are serving in our community in interesting and effective ways! Our first profile is of Mark Fackler, director of our ESL Program.

Interviewer: Mark, you are not trained as an ESL teacher. How did you get involved in COS’ ESL program?

Mark: I got involved two years ago, a year after I retired from Calvin’s faculty. My retirement plan was to spend half the year somewhere else in the world and half the year in GR. Those plans did not work out for a variety of reasons. So, when the opening came to organize COS’ ESL program, I thought, “Well, this is international.” That’s the thought that really got me, inspired me to look into this work. So, the leadership at COS said “Give it your best shot. See what kind of damage you can do.” So here we are two years later, the program is going pretty well. It’s a pretty inspiring program to talk about but more inspiring to see. I’ve said several times that if our membership could only be here for the 15-minute treat break that takes place every Wednesday and Thursday morning and see the camaraderie that exists between our tutors and our students, they would say “This is remarkable! All these different nationalities of students showing up in our church. All these children. All these colors. Being here is fun!” It’s a fun program to be a part of.

Interviewer: Are you issuing an open invitation?

Mark: Open invitation!

Interviewer: Do you want people to let you know ahead of time or just drop in?

Mark: Just drop in. Prior to last May’s graduation we had parties for the evening students and the morning students. We issued an invitation to the congregation and I knew the response would be sparse. But we had one older gent who wanted to play the piano. He plunked out How Great Thou Art on the piano. We enjoyed it; he was beaming when he was done. Others showed off some art work. That was the whole point, to get ESL students up and speaking in English. They’ve got language skills more than they thought. It was a fun time. There was a counter fill of ethnic foods we all enjoyed. The one thing I didn’t count on was that our graduation ceremony this year occurred in the middle of Ramadan.

Interviewer: Oh, my goodness.

Mark: Our majority Muslim students might be able to cook it and bring it, but they couldn’t eat it.

Interviewer: Not till sundown.

Mark: So, for them it was a kind of a trial, watching other people eat their food. We provided them with take home boxes. There wasn’t anything I could have done about it – I can’t change Ramadan and couldn’t change the schedule of our program.

My sense is that there is a dynamic of hope and friendship that animates our ESL program. The dynamic is this: the mamas know that in ten years they will not be able to talk with their children. They will be fluent in English and will forget the native tongue. Does she want to talk to her kiddos in their teenage years? The answer is usually a yes. So, they are here. So there is hope. There is also hope for jobs and for citizenship. They are intimidated by a government test they will have to pass. It’s not that hard after all; but when they complete it, they are often very pleased with themselves for passing a test and being full-fledged citizens, able to vote. For men – and the women too – the jobs available to them are often repetitive, mindless work in a factory. They are happy for the work and whatever wage they are getting, often not much. But with language they know that other opportunities will open to them. So, when you have that kind of dynamic – I’m working for the future, a real future; I’ve got that within my grasp – there is hope. And then there is the friendship factor. It’s possible that their tutor is the best native English-speaking friend that they have because they spend more time with the tutor than any other native American-English speaking person. So, we get tutors who are invited to a home for a dinner and who are asked questions like, “Where do I go for help with some medical problem?” We haven’t had any tutors who were asked for money. We would draw the line there.

Interviewer: I’m guessing you see this as God’s leading, your getting involved?

Mark: Yeah, I do.

Interviewer: How did you come to that conviction?

Mark: Well, God speaks to us in strange ways. If you are trying to pinpoint the cause and effect, you are thinking mathematically whereas God’s leading is often much more complex and relational. But my own sense of God’s leading is that I’m enjoying this a lot. And I’m providing an opportunity not only for the people in the program but for about 30 volunteers. I’m helping them enjoy this situation too.

Interviewer: In Reformed circles, we hear people talk about “building the kingdom of God.” Is this as part of that project? If so, how?

Mark: Good question. You see, I have evangelical roots. I’m reformed now, but you can never wipe out your roots. So let me reframe the question a little bit. We want our students to see the wonder of Jesus Christ through our work. Are there any conversions? That’s another mathematical type question. It’s more complicated than that. We do not use the bible in our classes. We don’t open or close with prayer. We don’t ask our students to participate with us in Christian type activities. But here’s what we do. We use Christmas and Easter to explain why Christians celebrate these holidays. We use missionaries who are part of our staff, who have spent lots of time in Muslim villages and know how to do this well. So, we ask them to do what they do on the mission filed but to do it here with our large Muslim student body. We trust their judgment and we trust the spirit of God in them. Sometimes it’s even a bit more than I am comfortable with like when we sing Christmas carols all together. We do that because we are told that it’s OK by the missionaries but also by the students. At Easter, we tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And this year, a prayer ministry began and every Thursday night Cele Mereness walks the circuits of classes praying for people. When there is knowledge of a specific need, she will call that person out and have a prayer time with them. She is getting to know the people. And I believe she inspires others to pray for the impact of ESL. Some of our students are from Catholic countries and not likely to react, but some are from strongly Muslim countries so there has to be some professional sensitivity there. So, the kingdom of God is growing but by obedience to Christ to show kindness to everyone. We share the gospel at appropriate times but don’t force it on anyone. When I was a kid I volunteered at the rescue mission in Detroit. There, you couldn’t get the meal unless you listened to the sermon. So, you had a lot of sleeping guys “listening.” We don’t do it quite that way. We’re a motley mix of people of all kinds, with a pervasive Christian MO, inclusive faculty, and city-wide connections.

Interviewer: You told the story earlier about the Vietnamese man who played the piano. Do you have any other favorite stories?

Mark: We have a very talented artist from Colombia. She loves to show the art she creates. We have a warm-hearted lady from Belarus who loves to bring back trinkets and chocolates whenever she takes a trip home. We have some long-time students who live across the street from us from Iraq and Iran who probably cannot travel home. They show up consistently. We have an older gent who is Iraqi. When he first came he knew no English. Greeting him was eye contact. Now 2 or 3 times a week he greets me back. I ask myself, if I lived in Iraq in my eighties, how much motivation would I have to learn a new language? But he’s there. We have two Chinese women who have to walk about 40 minutes every morning we meet. I often pass them riding my bike to COS and give them a “nee hou” from behind and surprise them. We have Turkish-Kurdish couple who were in a high-end business in Iraq. They are trying to open a Turkish café in an area nearby. The process of opening a business here is not quite what they are used to, so they have had help from several people here with getting the right attorney, the right architect, and so on. So, our work has spilled out into other areas. They run a small business in Woodland Mall now – they are entrepreneurs. So, they have a challenge ahead of them.

Interviewer: What do you need from the congregation this fall?

Mark: OK. Let me put it this way. We need a steady stream of new tutors. A few tutors every year realize it’s time for them to move on. That’s fine. Their role needs to be taken by someone who has at least a little exposure to our literature, our class plans, etc., namely our subs. So, we need a steady stream of people willing to be subs for a while as they learn the program. Either mornings or evenings. Hardly any of our tutors are trained ESL teachers. It’s all on the job training. If I can use a baseball metaphor, we need a bullpen we can call on when we need another pitcher.

Interviewer: Thank you, Mark! We are very grateful for what you are doing.


This interview was conducted by Jim Bradley on July 5, 2018.