Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Teaching English, living her faith

Former student volunteer fulfills dream of returning to China to teach. ‘I have a heart to be in China,’ she says.

By Rebecca C. Asedillo*

The  town of Jining in Inner Mongolia, China, is more than 7,000 miles from the Richmond, Ky., home of Bethany and Robert Keith, but the couple is happy to be in Jining. Even when the roads turn icy and the temperature can drop to 3 degrees Fahrenheit in December.

To get to Jining from the United States, one usually flies to Beijing and then to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. From Hohhot, it is a three-hour train ride to Jining. The trains tend to be crowded, especially after snowstorms that make the roads impassable. No elevators or escalators ease the burden of carrying one’s luggage down to the station platform and up several stairs onto what could be, on days after a snowstorm, a frozen parking lot. But Bethany Keith doesn’t mind.

Several years ago, Bethany Keith participated in a student volunteer program in Shandong province. She returned to the United States convinced of her call to serve in China. “I have a heart to be in China,” she said. Against great odds, she is now in China again, teaching English and living her faith.

In August 2012, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries sent Bethany Keith to teach English for two years with the Amity Foundation. Amity placed her at Jining Teachers College, a local school with a student population of 8,000. She teaches English Monday through Thursday and once a month conducts classes for teachers. 

Why teach English in China? Is this missional? Amity Foundation and Global Ministries agree it is. Founded in 1985 by Bishop K.H. Ting, who died recently, and other Chinese Protestant church leaders,  Amity Foundation set out with a mission to make God’s love visible in Chinese society through education, health, rural development and social services.

Promoting peace, understanding

“Knowledge of a foreign language, especially English, is vital to good further study and career prospects in China today,” said Liu Ruhong, director of Amity’s Education and Cultural Exchange Division who supervises the Amity Teachers Program .

In the 1980s, the foundation sent the first Amity teachers to key universities in the big cities of China. In the 1990s, Amity shifted its focus to smaller teacher-training colleges in rural areas of eastern and central China. Today, Amity has identified the more remote and underdeveloped western and border regions of China as the areas of greatest need.  Provinces such as Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Guangxi are home to large minority nationality populations who are ethnically and linguistically different from the dominant Han Chinese population. Access to good English instruction in such places is more limited than in the more developed provinces. 

“The presence of Christian Amity teachers in such locations helps to promote peace, understanding, tolerance and harmony between peoples of different ethnic and faith backgrounds,” Ruhong said.

The program is a cooperative partnership between Amity, the local school and Amity’s overseas partners such as Global Ministries. The school covers housing and the costs of utilities and provides a supplementary stipend in addition to the monthly volunteer stipend Amity offers through grants from its partners. 

Following in Jesus’ footsteps

In preparation for their move to China, the couple participated in Global Ministries-sponsored Individual Volunteers training in June. “It was a blast,” Robert Keith said. In a collaborative arrangement, Church World Service facilitated Bethany Keith’s Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification and the logistics of travel, visa, air tickets and insurance.  

As members of the Northridge United Methodist Church, Richmond, Ky., the Keiths have been actively involved in mission and outreach. In China, foreign teachers must abide by the rules and guidelines that prohibit active proselytizing, especially in government-run schools. However, Bethany Keith said, Jesus “lived among the people and loved them, and by these means, people sought God.” She believes she and her husband can do the same.

Zhao Haizhong, the president of Jining Teachers College, affirmed appreciation and respect for the Amity teachers’ Christian belief, seeing their presence at the school as an avenue to cultural exchanges.

Although Robert Keith is not officially an Amity teacher, the school occasionally asks him to help with special English programs. Skilled in computers and web design, he is seeking opportunities to use his gifts in China. 

Please pray for Bethany and Robert Keith, and support the Amity Teachers Program, Advance Project #09801A.

*Asedillo is the executive secretary of mission relationship in the Asia Pacific region for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.