BY CHERI DAVIS, GRACE ATTENDER
April 3, 1971 - August 1989
It’s important to note that I grew up in a racist home. I never considered myself racist. I wanted friends of different races and cultures to come over, but was denied that opportunity because, and I quote, “What would the neighbors think?” I only state this because my story is one, as they all are really, of redemption. He has not only redeemed my life, but so many family members as well. After reading my story, you know He breaks cycles.
Beginning of 2009
While talking with a friend in the Westfield district about what she was doing that year, she told me she was an ESL teacher. I had no idea what that was. When I asked her about it, something strange happened within me. It was as if everything went blurry in the room except her. As she was explaining more, it was as if God was speaking directly to me. He was clear in saying that I would eventually do this. During the three minutes we spoke, in my mind I could see myself doing the things she was describing. At the end, she told me an ESL job was opening up in the new elementary that was being opened that next school year. I immediately went to tell my husband about what just happened with the comment, “I think my life just changed.” He was supportive from the moment I told him.
Over the next few months, I had prayed, applied, and researched for this job. Oh, did I mention that I had no official training? I knew English. I was a teacher. God was showing me what mattered...saying yes to whatever He is calling me to do. After I interviewed, for the job, the principal at the time told me he couldn’t wait to get me out there at that school. A week later, the call came. As I was surrounded by my husband and our two teenage daughters, I answered that call with confidence that I was the new ESL teacher there. The assistant principal of the school was the one on the other line. He was very gracious, telling me I did everything I could’ve done, but they were going with a different candidate. Wait. What? Had I misunderstood? Had I imagined that the principal told me he couldn’t wait to get me out there? What was happening?
I thanked him, hung up, and let the tears fall. My husband and our girls were crying, feeling my heart breaking. Even then, I felt the nudge of God. “They are watching. Be mindful how you respond. They will hear no some day. They need to see you trust me, even in your sadness.” This is what I felt at the moment I hung up from the call. I was caught between, “I can’t believe it” and “Ok, Lord. I know I wasn’t losing my mind that night talking to my friend.” Because of that one night, and with my husband’s support and encouragement, I inquired with HR at my current job to see if I could take a leave of absence for professional development and spend time trying to learn all I could about teaching ESL. They approved my leave and that was that. My thoughts were, I had one year to figure out what God was wanting me to do.
Yep, you read that right, two years later, I encountered some more crazy God moments. These are just a few:
Walking down the street, someone came up to me and asked if I was Cheri Davis. After I said yes, she said someone told her I could teach her English. Even though we talked and I shared my info, I never heard from her again. I feel like God gave me that moment to encourage me to keep going.
We met countless new friends that year and our lives were starting to fill with many people who spoke a few different languages.
A local Hispanic church asked me if I could teach an English class after their services each week. I gathered my family and some close friends and we taught about 25 friends.
After a few of these God encounters, the Deputy Major of Westfield sent me an email saying he would like me to come to talk to him about our ESL population in Westfield. I had no idea why, but of course, God had my attention! I went to a meeting that day looking like I hadn’t showered in two days because that is exactly what the truth was. My dad was in the hospital and didn’t have much more time to live, so we were going 45 min away each day to go see him. Showering was the least of my concern. Knowing God was in control of my dad’s life and the life I was living out myself, so I didn’t think anything about it. As I walked in, late, I was shocked to find that MANY key people from the city of Westfield were also attending the meeting. They were going around the table answering two questions; What is your name and why are you here. Really? Isn’t that the million dollar question?! So, in Cheri style, when it was my turn, which happened to be last, I said, “My name is Cheri Davis and I have no idea why I’m here, but can’t wait to find out!”
Long story short, they were just starting to build Grand Park and they were in talks with man businesses who didn’t want to quite commit to saying yes until they could make sure there was a group of people who would want the jobs of working in mainly restaurants and hotels. Being an elementary teacher, and one that had no interest in the business or political world, I simply asked them to get to the point of why they thought I would know anything about that and how I could help. They had studied the recent census taken and saw that there was a large population of Latino families living in Westfield. They wondered if I would be interested in teaching English for the City of Westfield. WHAT? Here was their offer...they would give me the Parks Department building for classes for free, they would advertise in the Current and put fliers up around the city. I asked if they had someone who could interpret those things and if there was a section in the Current that was in Spanish. And, if not, how they could call to register if no one in the city office that spoke Spanish. The wonderful lady in charge of the Parks Dept made things happen. Who knew things could really get done that quickly?
In the course of the next month, the city had a position open up so they filled it with someone who was bilingual. They talked to the Current and they started having a section of the publication in Spanish. I was thrilled that so many would not only know what was going on around town but felt a sense of belonging. We also scoured the city with fliers for this class. A couple months in, we had around 25-35 students, teaching them very informally, focusing on relationships as the goal. It was beautiful. I was so incredibly grateful that I had the day free to work on these things. God was showing me that I put Him in a box thinking my “job” was only one position at a school. He showed me a picture of a box and hands taking scissors and cutting the corners of the box so the passion and purpose could grow and ooze out to go where it needed.
By the end of April that second year, I had to decide if I was to quit my job and continue doing...what actually? I have no words to that question. I knew we also had two girls getting ready to go to college and I wanted to be mindful of finances. Do I give up my spot of 10 years experience for something that doesn’t pay, that isn’t really had no title, no retirement? Our HR director met with us and really suggested I don’t give my spot up for good, that it didn’t make sense. My husband told him that we know God is calling me to teach ESL and it doesn’t make sense sometimes.
The first week of April, we were driving to Florida for spring break when my friend and former college called. She was the literacy teacher at the school I had applied to. She said she was leaving to go to a different building to teach kindergarten, her dream job. I remember feeling hopeful on that call. I remember wondering if this was my “cutting the corners off the box” moment. We decided that I should apply for this. Turns out I got the job. I was teaching at the school, but with a different role. In my mind, I was happy. I was content. I could still teach adults in the evening, I could be around ESL kids during the day, and I could help my family financially. That first night of our Back to School night, I was standing in the doorway with the principal and counselor. As we were talking, I heard loudly, “Maestra!” (teacher in Spanish) from ahead of me and behind me. With those two families, God whispered with a nudge, “My ways are higher.” I realized I got to be with the entire family now! I was overwhelmed is an understatement.
We were sitting at a Covenent Community meeting when I heard Dave Rod said, “If you feel like you have something to contribute, money or an idea, come tell us!” We know Keith, Associate Pastor of Outreach & Care, because I had his kids in school and they live in our neighborhood. I emailed him asking if we could go to dinner to discuss an idea. They went out with us and listened to this entire story. I had envisioned ESL classes at Grace, but fully expected them to maybe say yes, but a few years down the road. To our surprise, he said yes! He was amazed by the story and noticed how God was really opening doors all along the way. Thankfully, he was used to hearing God stories and knew God’s character. He told me he would be in touch.
A few days later, I got an email from Keith. He said he knows we will have ESL class at Grace someday, but he just didn’t think they could take that on right now. I mean they were planting a zillion churches at the time and doubling the size of the Care Center, I simply replied that I was not going to lie, I was bummed. But I would pray that he would see what I saw. I saw a vision of our lobby. It was a view from above the bridge desk at the Care Center kiosk, almost as high as the ceiling. In this vision, which I can still clearly see in my mind, I saw people walking to and from, milling about in the middle of the lobby, many skin tones, many colors of hair, many ages, Grace lobby was crowded with many, many cultures. It’s a beautiful vision. So, when I emailed back I would pray for Keith, to see what I saw, I meant it. I wanted him, or someone there, to see what I saw.
That next day, I got an email from Keith. God was working. Why am I always stunned by that? His email wasn’t to me. I was copied on one he was sending to someone else, a reply to someone who had emailed him the night before. If you are following, that was the same night I said I would pray for him to see what I saw. I thought diversity meant ESL students. (Sorry, still in a box here. I’m learning.) Anyway, it turns out that someone emailed him asking if they could meet with him. They said, “We feel like something is suppose to be happening for our Latino friends at Grace”. God got his attention and the ball was rolling. I attended a meeting with these two wonderful ladies who felt like they wanted to start simultaneous Spanish translation at one of the services. Wow, was I still in a box?! Yes, God, we want them to know you even more than to know English! After they were done sharing, Keith looked at me and asked me to share the idea God gave me. There it was. It was go time. Keith said clearly God was asking us to open our doors to this and these beautiful people. Over the next month, my friend Carmen and I met with staff about having ESL classes at the Care Center. Before we knew it, we were up and running as the 4th service in the Care Center, the first one brought to Care Center by a non-staff member. Yep! Evidence of God...again! The first class had 20+ students and a wonderful group of volunteers. This year, year 3, we have 85 students. More than we ever asked for or imagined.
Nine years since that night God planted the seed in me, I got a text from my principal (the former assistant principal from 9 years ago!) to come and see him later that afternoon. I texted him back, “Am I fired?” His reply was, “100% no”. I respect and trust him, so I knew nothing bad like that would happen without knowing more. So, the next morning I go in to meet with him and our new assistant principal. I quote this part because I will NEVER, in my entire life, forget these words that came out of his mouth, “There have been a lot changes at Monon in the last 10 hours. __________ (insert ESL teacher’s name) took a job in a different school.” He didn’t need to say anything else. He actually had been on this journey with me over the years. He knew the details. He knew my heart. He knew the dream that God put in my heart. No words needed. Only tears. I put my face in my hands and just sobbed. After about 3-4 minutes, I looked up and said to him, “You had to be the one to tell me. It had to be you. This was as much about you as it is me. You were the one who told me no and yes!” He laughed through tears and we joked about him telling me no so many years before that day, how incredible God is, and how crazy it is to be a part of his story! As we were speaking, he had already lined up a meeting with the Superintendent to ask for a special permission to hire me without going through the formal interview process because school was starting in 3 weeks. It was done before I ever said yes. Truer than I even knew.
At Grace, we talk about our You Were Made For More calling. Mine took a few years to get all the details sorted out. But, I am living mine out each and every day. And, I want you to know that you can do. Be still. Listen for God's whisper. Follow His nudges. And, say yes to living into the life He is calling you to!