If you are reading this, you can read.
It’s a ridiculously obvious statement, I know. It’s statements like that that led my family to buy me a t-shirt with “Captain Obvious” printed across the chest.
Our ability to read is so second-nature to us that many of us no longer think about it, much less wonder over it. Many of us take it for granted.
So, let’s revisit the statement.
Si puede leer esto, puede leer.
Or إذا كنت تستطيع قراءة هذا ، يمكنك أن تقرأ.
Or Εάν μπορείτε να διαβάσετε αυτό, μπορείτε να διαβάσετε.
All four lines above say in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Greek the same thing as the first sentence of this article says in English. But if we don’t recognize the characters or know the languages, they are meaningless to us. You may have ignored them and jumped to the next recognizable words.
For many with whom we want to communicate, English is just as meaningless. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. You and I can give the gift of reading and understanding English. In fact, we should give that gift.
Partner with literacy ministries.
One way we can give the gift of reading and understanding English is by partnering or volunteering with organizations like Literacy ConneXus, a ministry established in 2004 by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and Baylor University.
According to a 2019 U.S. Department of Education report, 1 in 5 (21 percent) U.S. adults—or approximately 43 million people—have “low literacy skills.” Two-thirds of these adults are U.S.-born.
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“Low literacy skills” means a person likely cannot read a prescription or complete basic government or other forms, such as a job application.
Literacy ConneXus was started, in part, to address this problem. The ministry focuses on three areas: providing children with access to books, preparing children for school, and training church-based English-as-a-Second Language teachers. You and your church can be involved in any or all of these focus areas. A free ESL training event is being held April 22.
Being able to read and understand English is about more than getting a job and getting around. It’s also a key way we communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. For people who hold Scripture reading so highly, we ought to insist every person has the basic skills to read and understand Scripture.
Bible reading is central to literacy.
Protestants, from their beginnings in Europe, have known the importance and power of reading Scripture in their own languages. Some were willing to die for it.
Fleeing such persecution, Protestant American colonists made the New England Primer, with its inclusion of Scripture and Calvinist principles, “a principal textbook.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer motivated Puritans to teach reading to all citizens so that they could know and follow the Christian scriptures.”
Some Protestants, knowing how powerful Scripture is, also produced modified copies of the Bible—such as the Slave Bible—removing passages that might inspire unwanted actions. The Museum of the Bible describes the Slave Bible as “a missionary book,” stating it was used “to teach enslaved Africans how to read while at the same time introducing them to the Christian faith.”
Unfortunately, the Slave Bible publishers purposely omitted sections of the Bible—in particular those pertaining to Israel’s exodus—essential to understanding God’s desired relationship with us. It is right that all people be able to read all of Scripture.
Literacy is central to missions.
Just as learning to read the Bible—the whole Bible—has been central to literacy, literacy is at the core of Christian mission.
Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines, learned Maranao—the language of the largely Muslim Moro people in the southern Philippines—using a system he developed. He realized the system could be turned the other direction to teach people how to read their own languages.
Laubach’s method came to be called “Each One Teach One” and is credited with millions of people learning to read. He influenced literacy experts the world over—including at Baylor University—and continues to influence the work of Literacy ConneXus.
For some language groups, Bible translators have provided the first written alphabets and books. This foundational work is a first step in translating the Bible into these languages. A next step is teaching those to read who don’t already know how. When they read the Bible in their own language, it is life-changing.
Literacy is ministry.
Literacy isn’t just about teaching people to read in their native language. It is also about equipping them to function well in another language—which brings us back to ministries like Literacy ConneXus that provide ESL training and courses.
Remember those strange-looking lines at the beginning of this op-ed? What if you had no choice but to learn to make sense of them? How would you do it? Where would you go for help? What if you could learn to read and understand a new language among Christians who care about you, seek your welfare, and will walk with you as you learn?
I celebrate that people needing to learn English can find this kind of loving ministry in numerous Baptist churches. A simple Google search of Baptist churches in Texas with ESL classes will show you just how many there are.
Learning to read as a child may have been wondrous or overwhelming, depending on how quickly the skill came to you or if you struggled with a reading disability such as dyslexia. One of my closest friends required a specific approach to studying in high school because of a particular reading challenge he had.
Whatever our challenges were or still are in learning to read, reading is a gift that has changed our lives and the lives of those around us. It’s a gift we can and should give to others—whether our own children or someone else’s.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those solely of the author.