Growing understanding through English classes

One church in Manchester is helping victims of modern slavery by teaching them English, but it isn’t just the understanding of the students that has increased.

It started with a simple invitation. The Justice and Peace group from St Chrysostoms, a church in Manchester, invited the manager of a local safe house for victims of modern slavery to talk to them about the work they were doing. She described the exploitation that many of the men had gone through, and how little they were left with when they escaped. Often with no identity documents and just the clothes they stood up in, these men also struggled with English – which made it difficult for them to find jobs and move on with their lives.

After hearing the talk, the team at St Chrysostoms were sure that they wanted to act. They began by providing winter clothes for the men, making sure they were protected from the chill of winter. But they wanted to help in a longer term way.

They came up with the idea of holding English classes at the church for the men. Twice a week, a group of between 11 and 22 men come to the church and Alan, the Church Warden, leads a class. They go from basic, to intermediate, to conversational and they are focussed on the day to day needs of the pupils.

The classes cover basic topics like how to buy things from shops, British manners, and how to haggle at the market. Many of the students left school at 14, and have a low level of literacy, so the materials Alan has developed had to be accessible. To help those who are less literate, Alan uses pictures. With students from seven different countries to cater for, it’s important to keep things simple.

The classes go from basic, to intermediate, before becoming more like conversations. 

The classes go from basic, to intermediate, before becoming more like conversations. 

As well as Alan teaching the class, they also have volunteers who come to support the group. Hannah, the Church’s Parish Assistant, says sometimes people are hesitant to sign up. They worry that they’re not qualified to teach, that they’ll get things wrong. Or they might be unsure about the men themselves. It can make people nervous when they imagine the cultural differences they might have: how will they even communicate?

Hannah knows that as soon as they begin to hear the men’s stories, and get to know them personally, the stereotypes will fade away, along with their anxiety around teaching. Anyone can talk to someone about their day, or explain where to buy essentials like plasters or pasta, but it’s the fact that they’re making the time to do so that makes the real difference.  

As time has gone on, some of those attending the classes have become more embedded in the life of the church. A couple have spoken about their experiences at information evenings the church has held, to spread the word about modern slavery in the community. One revealed he could play the piano, and he now comes to play regularly before weekday worship.

There are plans for a gardening group, with the aim of finding ways to include the men that are “practical, good for their self-esteem” as Father Ian puts it. For example, another charity Alan works for goes into old people’s homes. Once they had some survivors attending the class who had worked in nail bars, so they came with him and gave the seniors hand massages and did treatments for them. The seniors loved it, and it gave the men a big boost. They had a sense of worth and well-being. No longer a victim, instead someone who can bring joy to others.

There are men of many different nationalities at the class, who all speak different languages. 

There are men of many different nationalities at the class, who all speak different languages. 

Most of those who attend the class are still living in the safe house but when they move on, they are often looking for a job. The church helps by going through their CV, and role playing the interview with them.

St Chrysostoms would love to see more churches taking up the idea, Alan has all the worksheets ready to go. But at the very least, Father Ian sees the classes as a great example of the unique value churches can bring to work with survivors. Not only providing the skills they need, but also giving them the space to reflect, heal, and flourish.