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Learning English in the City

Chaplaincy team member Danny Palmer writes...

The Guild Church of St Katharine Cree has been offering classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) since September 2022. What was initially a small group with a single volunteer has now grown into a whole day of classes. Anywhere between four and six volunteers per session and over fifty students per day come to learn. The ESOL classes continue to build the Church’s presence in the City of London and to develop beyond all hopes and expectations what being a Church for workers means.

During the early periods of the ESOL project at St Katharine, students mostly came from the cleaners and facilities branch of IWGB, a small Spanish-English language trade union branch focused on unionising precarious workers. When we had asked workers what they wanted from the Church, they asked for English classes on Saturdays. These students were migrants, principally from Latin America, engaged in low-wage jobs where precarity and harsh working conditions determine the vast majority of their time. And even when people are not at work, we’ve found through countless conversations that these communities are subject to persistent marginalisation in their everyday lives. They are often unaware of the unfairly complicated processes of employment contracts, registering for a GP, housing claims and more. An inability to speak English confidently only worsened their situations. It was with these concerns in mind that St Katharine began offering its classes, aiming to teach English to help members of these groups and communities better control their lives and not be dependent on, and vulnerable to, the help of others.

Over the course of this year the initial group who met on Saturday mornings has grown in numbers and developed in form. Many who have joined the morning class have come to St Katharine either through friends or by hearing about us through word of mouth. We do not need to advertise. Many migrant workers now come to St Katharine, knowing that here we are building a Church whose heart lies with those most exploited and marginalised. Our 'offer' now includes an afternoon session, run parallel to an intermediate-level “Conversation for Action” group, as well as our beginner class on Saturday mornings. New members of the ESOL classes come from ever more diverse contexts, from refugees from Kosovo and Ukraine to Albanian workers residing in London.

The increase in students has also led to an increased need for volunteers. Our fantastic lead volunteer teacher Alison is now joined by friends and partners helping every Saturday during term. The languages our volunteers speak now include Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Ukrainian, Albanian, French and Italian. This allows us to welcome far more workers and migrants than we could have ever hoped. If you'd like to volunteer with us please get in touch.

We love to help migrant workers in London learn English. But we are not a language school. We are a Church, and our mission for workers here in the City means building a community that is shaped by the Good News of the Gospel. At the heart of this is joyful celebration: of music and culture, often with partners and other organisations and involving food, and of Christian feasts and festivals which matter to the migrant communities in our classes. It has become a profound source of joy to see how many of the ESOL students want to be part of a community, the many other people they bring in, and the interest with which they actively engage in the Church’s life. We have hugely enjoyed moments of songs being learned in Spanish by English-speaking volunteers while Latin American-led choir groups perform in English, and precious occasions where the most timid non-native speaker summons up the confidence to say they want to converse in English alone. As one of those involved with our ESOL classes, I am deeply moved at how this Church, at the heart of London’s financial district, has given life to the fellowship of many flags, a legion of languages, and an unnumbered but resonant voice.

We began with the hope of offering something we knew from our listening process that many needed. We have now become a community that was initially brought together by need, but it continues to grow in the confidence that nothing should be a boundary to fellowship. Our ESOL classes have been instrumental to this. With an eye to the coming Autumn term, and with a trail of truly celebratory and touching moments, our hope has become a reality, which not only underscores this Church’s mission to workers but shows both its necessity and beauty.


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