Story and photos by Jesse Lee
It’s 3 p.m. on a Tuesday on the Lower East Side, and as children get out of school, joyful laughter can be heard all around. Some race to nearby parks. A few head home. Yet others take another route.
These children make their way to the Chinese Evangel Mission Church, on Madison Street. The church, founded in 1944, has opened an after-school program that offers tutoring and English-language help. But this good deed strains the church’s resources and its volunteers.
The church, originally known as the Chinese Evangelistic Center, began an outreach ministry to New York City’s Chinese immigrant community in 2007. For adults, the center provides help with a range of personal and legal problems, including translation services for immigrants who need help dealing with governmental agencies, language instruction for learning basic English, as well as Bible classes. For teenagers, the center offers SAT preparation and a place to hang out and socialize.
And for younger children, the outreach program is a safe place to play after school and to get help with homework.
“We want the community to know that we are here, we are here to help, and we are here for them,” says the pastor, John Eng. “Many of these families are low income and live in tenements or projects. Crime has always been a problem around here and can you believe that the deli on the corner sells drugs? It’s right across from a school! We want people to know we are a safe haven from all of that.”
All these services require both work and funding. The program has seven teachers who work in shifts; two are available on any given day. The teachers are unpaid volunteers who do the work out of a passion for the community and their students.
Supplies and games, which are paid for by the church, cost several hundred dollars a year.
The after-school program averages 30 elementary schoolchildren and 10 high-school and college students a day – a lot for two teachers. The students enter the church around 3:10 p.m.; younger ones are brought by their parents, older ones come by themselves. Smiles and giggles fill the room as the children recount the events and mishaps of their school day. They soon begin to take out their homework and books and get to work. The teachers go from table to table, helping where needed.
Jerry, an energetic first grader, comes up to a teacher and pulls on his sleeve, asking for help with his math homework. Across the room, Derek calls for help with a word he doesn’t understand in his reading. The mess of books and paper scattered on tables slowly disappear as 5 o’clock rolls around.
For the younger children, the last hour of the program is devoted to play. The kids finish their work and take out games. A girl named Nicole clutches the board game Candy Land and asks a teacher to play with her. She is softly refused, as the teacher has too much homework to check.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough sometimes,” says Robert Hom, the head teacher. “I have my other job, I’m in grad school, and I have my family to care for, so there’s definitely a lot on my plate. But as any teacher can tell you, that feeling of helping a child learn and achieve something is well worth the time and energy.”
At 6 p.m., the end of the after-school program, parents arrive to pick up their children. All the parents are Chinese immigrants, and only a few speak English.
“I always had to take my kids around with me while I was shopping and running errands,” says Soo Yun, the mother of Zu Yee and Mun Yee, through another mother who translated. “Then I heard of CEMC and how they were holding a free program, so I quickly signed these two up. They like it here and I know they’re safe.”
As Soo Yun and her daughters make their way outside, Eng, who describes himself as “100 percent American-born,” stands near the entrance, chatting in Chinese with some parents.
“We are Christians here as well, so we take an interest in these kids’ lives,” says Eng. “We get to know their parents, their brothers and sisters, and even their personal lives. We are here to share God’s love and I’m just blessed to be a part of this program.”