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Diocese of Knoxville English classes transform lives

Local, international learners benefit from lay ministry that is growing in numbers    

By Gabrielle Nolan

It is a common human experience to travel to a foreign country and not understand the language. Tourists fumble through basic vocabulary as they try to communicate their thoughts to the locals.

But when someone arrives in a new country with the intention to resettle there, the language barrier can become an overwhelming obstacle to securing a job, finding medical care, going to school, and forming new friendships.

Access Cultural Diversity is an independent lay ministry in the Diocese of Knoxville that provides classes for English-language learners so that individuals can effectively communicate in their families, jobs, and communities.

The Knoxville-based ministry is led by Chester Pun-Chuen, a longtime parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“We’re not here to laugh at you, or we’re not here to demean you because you don’t speak the language. We’re here to work with you,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said. “We aim to provide a life-changing experience, which will help their skills to fully function in North America.”

Classes range from introductory English to beginner, intermediate, and advanced. The four main objectives are to listen, speak, read, and write with confidence.

Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner Chester Pun-Chuen uses an English Language Learners workbook as he leads classroom instruction via Zoom on his computer.

Mr. Pun-Chuen noted that these classes are titled English Language Learners (ELL) instead of English as a Second Language (ESL), since many participants “speak three, four, or more languages; it’s not the second language.”

The program is now in its fourth year and has served over 300 students since its inception.

While most students are local to Knoxville, others in Tennessee join Zoom sessions from Chattanooga, Johnson City, and Nashville. Still others join online from around the country—Florida, New Jersey, or Kentucky.

The growing program now has participants joining from abroad, including international students from Mexico, France, Haiti, Brazil, Colombia, and Moldova.

“People outside the country learned it from relatives here in our parish and also from our former students who are still continuing in the program,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said.

“Access Cultural Diversity has really reached out to the world with this program as a ministry from the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he noted.

Answering the call

Father David Boettner, rector of the cathedral, contacted Mr. Pun-Chuen in 2018 to ask if he could assist a refugee from Burundi who was hoping to attend Mass, to which Mr. Pun-Chuen agreed.

As it turned out, the refugee’s neighbors, a mom with four children, were also Catholic and needing a way to attend Mass.

Mr. Pun-Chuen and his wife, along with volunteers from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, began to drive the two families to Mass every weekend.

Support then came to these families in the means of donated clothing, groceries, and furniture for their apartments. However, Mr. Pun-Chuen realized that the material items were only temporary solutions.

“The kids were still struggling to speak English, but the kids were beginning to pick up the English language because they were going to school,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said. “I was particularly concerned about the mom because the kids were translating for the mom.”

Mr. Pun-Chuen began researching how to teach the family English. He took a two-day ESL certification training program with Knoxville Internationals Network (KIN), a nonprofit that aims to educate and employ internationals in the area, as well as equip churches to assist internationals.

Mr. Pun-Chuen was dropping off donations at the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville and crossed paths with Susan Unbehaun, the executive director. He approached her about the possibility of starting English classes in the building.

“She said, ‘Oh perfect!’” Mr. Pun-Chuen recalled, noting at that time Mrs. Unbehaun had already been contacted by Knox County Schools asking for an English program. She invited Mr. Pun-Chuen to join for the meeting.

“I said OK, I don’t know anything about this… I didn’t know what I was getting into exactly,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said.

The entire second floor of Ladies of Charity was chosen as the classroom space, and eight students registered for the first class in June 2018.

“I started recruiting friends, teachers, or retired teachers from Our Lady’s Guild at Sacred Heart, and they all kind of helped out, and it all started there,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said. “I had about maybe six ladies that joined me, and we taught in class at 9:30 in the morning on Tuesdays at Ladies of Charity.”

A new mission

What he thought would be a one-time project “snowballed,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said.

Students that enrolled in the entry-level class continued on to the next level, while a new entry-level class was formed.

“The key to this was building trust,” he said. “The key is not really giving them the ability to be perfect English speakers, but building the level of confidence in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, the four factors.”

“If they don’t trust you, especially refugees or internationals, you’re a complete stranger to them and they don’t open up,” Mr. Pun-Chuen explained. “Once you build that level of trust, then they’re engaging, and that’s where it becomes easier and easier for them to pick up the language process.”

The young organization managed to survive through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“When COVID hit us in March of 2020, we had to stop the program because we couldn’t do the in-person classes. It was unfortunate,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said.

The teachers did not want to abandon their students, so during a two-week hiatus Mr. Pun-Chuen explored virtual options that could work to continue the program with his ELL students.

“In fact, when COVID hit…Knoxville International Network considered us the largest ELL online program in the area,” he continued. “We were the very first ones to apply the Zoom platform while the others had stopped. I believe the approach to our program has found the chemistry to people wanting to learn a new language by building their level of confidence in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”

The language of evangelization

Mr. Pun-Chuen noticed that many other English classes in the area are being offered at churches.

“Most of them are using this method or program to entice [people] to come to their church. We are the only Catholic ministry right now that’s offering the ELL program,” he said.

Mr. Pun-Chuen explained that there is no pressure for the students to learn about the Catholic faith or join a parish, but instead classes occasionally discuss Christmas or important feast days to learn about American traditions and culture.

“I didn’t want to alienate any of our other non-Catholic internationals,” he said. “But through example, and through deeds, they know we are Catholics.”

“It gives us the opportunity to do Christ’s work, welcome the stranger. And that’s what we’re doing,” Mr. Pun-Chuen noted.

Currently, all the teachers for the ELL classes are Catholic.

Linda McDermott taught at schools in Philadelphia and Baltimore before moving to Knoxville 25 years ago, and then became involved as a volunteer at Sacred Heart Cathedral School and Knoxville Catholic High School.

“I love being with people,” Mrs. McDermott said. “I feel really confident in teaching. I love to plan the lessons… I love teaching.”

Mrs. McDermott knew Mr. Pun-Chuen from volunteering at Sacred Heart Parish, and he invited her to join the ELL team at its beginning in 2018.

Throughout her time volunteering, she has been an encourager, primary teacher, and curriculum coordinator. Currently, she teaches an advanced-level class for individuals who are in the workforce and want to improve their English.

“I touch on grammar a lot in my class, sentence structure and how that sentence structure helps them to speak clearly and in full sentences,” Mrs. McDermott said.

“I really see such a difference with the people that I have been teaching over the years,” she continued. “We have three students that I’ve had since the beginning of our classes, and they’ve progressed so much in their confidence level.…They’re in the workforce now.”

Not only is teaching a passion of Mrs. McDermott’s, but it also strengthens her faith.

“A lot of these people need just a little encouragement and just loving on them,” she said. “When you see other people and you put life in perspective of how lucky we are here in the United States…you see these people that they’ve come here for a better life.”

‘I had a dream’

One such student is Philomene Musabyeyezu, a Rwandan refugee who came to the United States in 2012.

In 2018, she heard an announcement at Holy Ghost Parish in North Knoxville about Mr. Pun-Chuen’s ELL classes and decided to enroll. She attends those classes today.

“It helped me very much. It helped me to help others,” Ms. Musabyeyezu said.

Ms. Musabyeyezu is fluent in Swahili, and her growing English skills allowed her to act as a translator between the Swahili and English communities at Holy Ghost, where Mass is celebrated in Swahili on the fourth Saturday of each month.

“I try to connect them like a coordinator. I try to translate them,” she said. “So, if they have something they need, I help them to talk to Father (Bill) McNeely (Holy Ghost pastor) or any people.”

Besides being a member of the Swahili choir, Ms. Musabyeyezu is an active member of the jail ministry, using her English skills to share the Gospel to those imprisoned.

“We go to visit the prisoners, then we share the Word of God, the readings, the Gospels, prayer…some people do the preaching,” she noted.

“[Philomene] is one of my star students…she has come so far,” said Mrs. McDermott, noting how Ms. Musabyeyezu accomplished her goal of writing a book.

“When I came here, I was with a little bit of English, but I had a dream to write my book and also I want to help the people,” Ms. Musabyeyezu said.

“My book is called My Journey, My Miracle. It was in my mind to write my story for my kids and my grandkids,” Ms. Musabyeyezu explained. “I wrote this book because I wanted to let my kids and my grandchildren know where I came from and my story. Additionally, I wanted them to know about my journey and my miracles living life as a refugee.”

Working toward the future

Several organizations partner with Access Cultural Diversity to provide support or spread the word about class registration. Some of these organizations include Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, Bridge Refugee Services, Knox County Schools, and Knoxville Internationals Network.

Due to limited funding, Mr. Pun-Chuen largely relies on word-of-mouth recommendations instead of advertising.

Donations totaling $3,390 from sponsors and friends have provided free classes to 113 students.

“[Chester has] a really big heart and he has done an exceptional job,” Mrs. McDermott said. “Our program has grown so much from the beginning… We have some wonderful, wonderful people that have been along this journey with us, too.”

One semester of classes costs $30 and includes a workbook. Classes are held once a week on Tuesdays at Ladies of Charity, or Saturdays at Sacred Heart Cathedral School from 9:30-11 a.m.

The spring semester runs from January to April, which is followed by a summer reading program from June to August. The fall semester begins in September and ends in December.

For those who may be interested in volunteering their time toward the ELL classes, there is a need for encouragers, especially those who speak Spanish.

Contact Chester Pun-Chuen at knox2150@yahoo.com for more information.

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