The International Learning Center: One Couple’s Journey to Reach the Sojourners
Just off Chester Avenue in Jacksonville, Fla., sits a simple one-story building. Some drive by it without a second glance. But for others, the building is a place of hope—a place of refuge and light in a confusing new country. It’s called the International Learning Center (ILC).
“Who’s Sharing With Them?”
Executive Director Kim Carr mirrors the ILC as an unwavering beacon of hope to everyone she meets. In 17 years of ministry to internationals, Kim and her husband Ron have seen it all. But they’ll both tell you the ILC wasn’t their idea.
“It was all the Lord’s idea,” Kim says. On a Labor Day weekend in 2000, God placed the birth of the ILC into her heart—using a crowded mall food court to do it.
The sound of many languages peppered the air. Vivid and colorful shades of clothing jumped out at Kim. People from many ethnicities were all gathered there in the food court.
“We heard no English whatsoever,” Kim says. “I stopped and looked at my daughter and said, ‘Who’s reaching out to them?’”
Lots of Love Letters
The question lingered in Kim’s mind, and it prompted her to present an idea to Ron. “She told me, ‘I want to send a message of God’s love to every foreign-sounding name in the phone book,’” Ron says. He thought his wife had gone crazy. Ron held up the phone book in front of her and said, “Do you have any idea how long that would take?”
But before Ron knew it, he was sitting with his wife and his daughter stuffing envelopes. For six months, they sat in the living room at night and watched TV while writing, addressing, stamping and stuffing. “We sent a message to each name, some in international languages,” Kim says. “We stamped each letter with a love-stamp and we wrote their names in calligraphy to show them honor.”
Soon they knew where every distinct people group was located in Jacksonville. As Ron put it, “The Lord was teaching us the logistics of the international community.”
Before 9/11, they had sent out over 5,000 letters. But Kim wanted to do more.
A God-Ordained Meeting
The more she learned about the international community, the more she realized an English as a Second Language (ESL) program would help the most and became certified to teach ESL. “This stretched me tremendously,” she says.
At first, Kim thought this was something God had for her to do alone. Her first classes were held in the back of a Chinese restaurant. She taught ESL to four or five people. She thought she would go around to apartment complexes and teach English to women from all over the world. “But then one day I was prayer-driving an area we had sent letters to,” Kim says. “I was going down the road and the Lord said, ‘Turn right.’”
Almost through the intersection, Kim made a hard right turn and ended up at the YMCA. She thought to herself, “Okay, the Lord’s telling me to go in.” Nervous, with her heart beating fast, she entered, introduced herself to the executive director and told him, “I can teach English as a Second Language, and there are many people who need that here.”
The director hesitated. At 6’4″, he towered over Kim, and she couldn’t help feeling intimidated. She was thinking to herself, “You’ve blown it. You didn’t pray enough.”
But then the director put his head down on his desk and said, “I just need a minute. You see, 12 hours ago we were in that trailer”—he pointed—”asking God to send somebody to teach English and help all the immigrants we’re receiving. I’m just a little shaken the Lord brought you in so fast,” he said. Then and there, the director gave Kim a 10,000 square foot facility to use, provided childcare and met the costs for textbooks and all other expenses. All she had to do was show up.
Ron describes himself as “kicking and screaming the whole way,” about the letter-writing campaign and Kim’s ESL ventures. But the same day as Kim’s YMCA encounter, God impressed on Ron’s heart that this program was His idea and He wanted Ron to be fully behind it. “There are two places you can be when God has something He wants done,” Ron says. “You can be supportive or resistant to it. That was confirmation He was calling us.”
The ILC was born. Kim and Ron set to work leaning heavily on Mandarin Baptist Church. “We advertised to internationals by posting signs in locals markets and dropping fliers at about 50 apartments in the refugee area.” In their first year of teaching at the YMCA, over 250 international people attended. The next year over 350 came. About 25% of those people made a profession of faith.
Ten years after their first classes in the YMCA, a donor gave the ILC a significant gift to help purchase their own facility, just off Chester Avenue. In 17 years they’ve taught more than 6,000 people from 110 of the 123 countries in Jacksonville. About a fourth of those students have made a profession, and 90% of those new believers come from unreached and unengaged people groups.
Using Their Own Cultures
Kim and her team designed a beautiful tea room at the ILC to help them reach people by respecting their cultures. Here they use china to serve delicious pastries, coffee and tea as they begin their classes and share the good news. Kim says when they honor and serve the internationals this way, the people honor them back by staying. “In keeping with their culture, you don’t walk out on that,” she says.
One of the greatest tools of sharing through their ESL program is how the ILC uses the Scriptures as its reading curriculum. In September, classes start in Genesis, then will move all the way to the New Testament so they will be learning about the true meaning of Easter by the spring. Classes learn to read verses on a PowerPoint screen, associated with images. Students are taught by putting pictures of a story in the correct sequence (“left-to-right,” Kim says, “since most cultures that come to us are right-to-left”). Higher-level students practice retelling the stories in their own words. The students build correct muscle structures to speak English, and they even do crafts that apply to the story. “Here we’ve got tactile, audible and visual learning,” Kim says.
Another effective tool to reach internationals in the classroom is through prayer requests. “The first time prayer is answered, the people are just so amazed,” says Kim. Some say they’ve never seen prayer answered before.
Every Soul Worth The Same
In our post-9/11 age, when fear of other people groups cripples the nation, Kim and Ron remain adamant that all people are equally valuable in God’s eyes. “At the ILC, race and origin have never been a consideration,” Kim says. “We strive to demonstrate this by valuing everyone that walks in our door. This transforms our students, and they begin to see themselves as precious to God. Many students enroll without any understanding that they are beautiful in the eyes of the Lord. How can we possibly talk about new life if they do not even see themselves as valuable human beings?”
Expanding for the Kingdom
With the Lord’s success working through the ILC, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) looks to replicate the ILC in major cities throughout the country. “I am traveling to large urban areas building teams, bringing in trainers to certify ESL teachers, and establishing a teaching location,” Kim says. She also looks for a body of believers that will support the ILC work with volunteers and finances.
“We have to develop everything in our program and make it available to all these new start-ups,” she says. “So every lesson plan will be written and all the administrative stuff will be taken care of. That way, when we come to your city, we can say, ‘We are here looking for volunteers, and you don’t have to do any preparation. It’s all done.’”
Two programs in Queens, N.Y., and Syracuse, N.Y., are scheduled to start by the end of January 2017. Programs in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. will follow.
“The ILC is holistic,” Ron says. “We love on people and enter into authentic relationships with them. The Lord reaches out to them through us and they often experience inner healing and come to love Him.”