Divinity students teach reading for real change

By April L. Bogle | Candler Connection | July 23, 2012

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First-year Master of Divinity students Rachelle Renee Brown and Miranda-Lynn Gartin up and left lucrative marketing careers in Ohio and California because they wanted to make a difference in the world. Little did these corporate exiles know that teaching English literacy to an immigrant Burmese family — a mom and dad with four children who had spent most or all of their lives in a Thai refugee camp — would make a world of difference disappear.

Brown and Gartin were paired last August with the Wah family by Refugee Family Services and Candler's Contextual Education program, which places students in social service, clinical, and ecclesial settings to gain practical ministry experience. Both students felt confident when they signed up to work with the Refugee/Immigration Program. Gartin had taught literacy in Honduras and Guatemala and felt certain this experience would help her teach others. Brown assumed her fluency in Spanish would be an asset.

They began to feel like strangers in a strange land, though, when they found out the family was from Burma and spoke the language Karen, and their phone call to set up their first visit was greeted with "wrong number" and a disconnect. Yet this mutual disorientation quickly became their common ground. They discovered it at the Wah family home in Clarkston, Ga., which Brown and Gartin set out to find — despite the phone disconnect — and then came to eagerly anticipate each week.

The Wahs fled Burma for their safety and came to the U.S. with no jobs, no home, no country — and almost no English language skills. 

"They had left their country and lost everything, so literacy was only a minor issue when we first met," says Gartin. "We immediately saw that they needed the basics of survival in a new culture."

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