Ther Dee came to the United States as a Karen refugee six years ago. When asked why he wanted to become a U.S. citizen, he said, smiling, “I live in America. I love America.”
BR photo by Liz Tablazon
Brenda Forlines leads a citizenship class at Friendly Avenue Baptist Church in Greensboro.
Dee is one of about 20 refugees and immigrants who attend a weekly citizenship class at Friendly Avenue Baptist Church (FABC) in Greensboro, N.C. Every Monday evening, they spend almost two hours practicing the pledge of allegiance and oath of allegiance, reading, writing and conducting mock interviews.
Jenny Vaughan from Guatemala started coming after a friend completed the class. She said the class has helped her build confidence for the interview and learn how to connect with a lawyer.
“They’re good teachers,” she said about the volunteers who facilitate the class.
FABC began offering citizenship classes in October 2013, a few months after Brenda Forlines moved to the area from Florida. Forlines, who retired from the Florida Baptist Convention as the director of church and community ministries, intentionally pursued membership at FABC because of its preexisting outreach to the Karen population.
Three years before she retired, Forlines started directing an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at an apartment complex near her church that was home to mostly Karen refugees in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Once I retired, then I had time to get more involved in their lives,” Forlines said in an interview with the Biblical Recorder. “I ended up working 40-50 hours a week taking them to doctors, making appointments for them, helping them with their mail. … We just helped them do everything – go to WIC, open bank accounts, birth babies.”
BR photo by Liz Tablazon
Students practice the Oath of Allegiance during a class at Friendly Avenue Baptist Church.
It was around that time that Forlines heard a conference speaker talk about teaching citizenship classes. The families and individuals she worked with in ESL were reaching the five-year mark at which they were eligible to apply for citizenship.
So when Forlines moved to North Carolina to be closer to family and met with FABC leaders about how she could get involved with ministry to the Karen community, she had citizenship classes on her mind.
Bryan Presson, FABC missions pastor, had citizenship classes in mind too.
A new class starts every September, with some students repeating the program until they are ready to meet with a lawyer to start the naturalization process.
Forlines said she, with help from three volunteers, spend the first three months teaching U.S. history and government structure and reviewing the questions included in the citizenship test. Applicants must answer six out of 10 civics questions correctly during their interview. They must be able to answer questions about their backgrounds, and read and write sentences in English.
“We just go at a pace that would fit them,” starting with five to seven questions per week then adding more as they progress, she said. By spring, students have usually learned all 100 questions that can be asked on the civics test.
Forlines teaches for about 20 minutes then divides the class into smaller groups.
“We practice, we practice, we practice every week,” she said. “Some of those who were young when they came here … they can go through it pretty fast, [but for] some of these others, it’s very hard.”
Seven students currently have open applications, and at least four have become citizens this year.
“Probably half of this year’s class will be citizens by the end of the year,” Forlines said. “There are four or five with limited English, and it will take them a while. … I’ve had two to fail because of language.”
BR photo by Liz Tablazon
Chuck Moy leads a review session, including Ther Dee, a Karen refugee who came to the United States six years ago.
She shared a story of a 60-year old woman who never went to school but has been attending the class every week.
“Every day she listens to the CD that we have prepared, and she has memorized these 100 questions.”
Forlines keeps in touch with many of the students after their oath-taking ceremonies, often helping them apply for their children’s citizenship certificates. Some are members of the FABC Karen congregation that Presson, a missionary church planter, leads.
Although the class includes people of different religious backgrounds, Forlines said the students are regularly exposed to Christianity. She opens class with prayer, and Evelyn Frost, one of the volunteers, closes with a Bible story to practice comprehension and speaking. Frost, a retired missionary to Uganda, uses The Story to teach her lessons. This week it was about Lazarus.
“I take them to a lot of their appointments … when we’re riding to take them to fingerprinting, I have some hours to just talk and hear their story and share. It’s an opportunity to share,” Forlines said about how the relationships she builds can lead to gospel conversations.
Frost and two other volunteers, Ola and Chuck Moy, lead the smaller practice groups. In addition to reviewing content, they encourage students to speak loudly and clearly. Two other FABC members serve as substitute teachers as needed, and another has contributed financially to help students with attorney and application fees.
The class isn’t the only activity in the building on Mondays. While elementary and high school students come for tutoring, a few of their parents stay for an ESL class taught by another church member, Cathy Lohr. On Saturdays, Presson trains Karen pastors and leaders as part of the ADVANCE program of Gateway Seminary.
Over the past six years, about 50 refugees and immigrants have become U.S. citizens with the support and assistance of FABC ministries and volunteers.
“I put that under the heading of missions,” Lohr said about the programs. “We’re not on the field, but we’re helping people who are not from here and who need that kind of help.”