Illinois UCC church spreads good word of literacy among immigrants of all ages

Illinois UCC church spreads good word of literacy among immigrants of all ages

May 21, 2012
Written by Connie Larkman

Even the casual observer can read a lot into the passion for social justice at Church of Peace UCC in Rock Island, Ill.

This coming July starts the church's second year of involvement in the Summer Family Literacy Program – an outgrowth of a popular school year program that helps immigrant adults learn English and/or or complete their GED while keeping youngsters from falling behind.

"With the children, we just really work on reading," said the Rev. Michael Swartz, the church's senior pastor. "We think that is the essential skill. So we read, do fun things, maybe little art projects as a family."

The summer program – open to children in the Rock Island school district – serves preschoolers, elementary-aged children and adults learning English. Partnering with Church of Peace in the literacy mission are the Regional Office of Education, Rock Island School District No. 41, Rock Island Library and Blackhawk College, which provides staffers who teach English as a second language (ESL).

"The elementary age group was added for the summer so that parents didn't have to leave their children home unattended," said Swartz. "It's a fun and educational opportunity for these children."

"By the time we finished [last year's program], we had nearly tripled our average daily attendance. The initial day, I worked with nine students; by the end, we had an average of about 25 a day," said Mitchell Elliott, a Davenport teacher and lead instructor for the elementary group.

Average overall daily attendance for the three groups in the summer of 2011 was 71, evenly divided amongst preschoolers, elementary-age children and adults, said Swartz.

Lisa Viaene, who has overseen teachers in the adult English learners program, said she has worked many years with at-risk families in various capacities, but there is something special at this one.

"The program at the Church of Peace in Rock Island surpasses any and all programs that I have ever been involved with," said Viaene. "Working one on one with immigrants who have endured the toughest of times and greet you daily with a huge smile and hug is truly gratifying. To be able to teach them one new word a day brings such joy to their lives."

Swartz said the church was founded as a German language congregation, "so we may have a little more sympathy for newcomers who speak a different language.  For 20 years or so, business was conducted in German. In the 1970s, the character of our neighborhood changed quite a bit. There was a lot of discussion as to whether we should move out of this particular location.

"One of the committee members said, 'If we were a mission-minded people, there's a lot of need  right here.'  They voted to stay in 1975 and to become a more mission-oriented congregation to try to meet needs of our neighborhood."

And now, what was old is new again.

"We have people here learning English, and who are recent immigrants like our forebears were in 1895 when we organized ourselves," said Swartz. "People here speak Korin, Burmese, Spanish, Farsi and a representation of African languages including Swahili and Kirundi."

As the institution of summer school gradually fades away, Church of Peace – with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – has been providing a school nutrition program for the past eight years, said Swartz.

"For some of these kids, if there is no summer school, they just plain old don't eat."

For more information on Church of Peace UCC, visit

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Connie N. Larkman
Managing Editor & News Director
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115