In the autumn of 2021, we were finally able (after the end of lockdown) to launch our long-awaited English Language Conversation Café at Abbey Baptist Church in the centre of Reading. Reading is one of the largest towns in the UK with a population of 350,000 people, 35% of which are migrants (drawn to Reading because of the plentiful job opportunities), with 150 different language groups. The Café has proved to be a huge success, exceeding our expectations, with around 25-30 visitors (plus 10 or so helpers), attending our weekly meetings on a Wednesday afternoon from 2.00-3.30 p.m.

Marina and Julia

The idea was born three years ago, not long after my wife Julia and I arrived in Reading. We are both ordained and accredited Baptist Ministers (although I am now sort of ‘retired’) and Julia had accepted a call to be the Minister of the historic Abbey Baptist Church (founded in 1640) situated in the town’s famous Abbey Quarter. We inherited a situation where, in addition to our own congregation, the Baptist Church had opened its doors to three other culture-specific churches – a Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan group, a predominantly Ghanaian group, and a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian group. Although we are all Christians the four churches had comparatively little to do with each other, a situation which troubled us greatly.

At the time I was doing some academic research (with the University of Winchester) into the positives and negatives of culture-specific churches, which provided me with the opportunity to enter into meaningful discussions with all four churches. On the basis that working ‘side-by-side’ might be a more profitable way of moving forward than ‘face-to-face’ controversy, we looked for some way in which the four churches could find a way of working together – ‘connected-yet-focussed’ if you like. What soon became apparent was that fluency in the English language was a problem for a number of people in each of the migrant churches – as well as for many of the other migrants in Reading. So, the idea of establishing an English Language Conversation Café on the church premises at Abbey was born.

It soon became equally apparent, however, that little or no support was going to transpire from these other churches and that Abbey Baptist Church would have to get the thing off the ground if it was going to go ahead. At the time our membership at Abbey Baptist Church was numerically small, with only two or three people under the age of 60. If we were to go ahead with the café, we would need to partner with others who could help us.

One of our church members (who runs a language school) suggested 2:19. I had heard a little of them and so we contacted them and arranged to meet up with Marina Swainston-Harrison. It was an inspiring time, and the outcome was that we decided to ‘launch out into the deep’ (Luke 5:4) and just go for it. Thus, Abbey iCaf was born. We could, however, not have done this without the wonderful ongoing help of Marina and 2:19.

As a church we had committed ourselves to transitioning from a largely white, very British, traditional Baptist Church into an international, integrated, intercultural church. We had already started to partner with other organisations in Reading such as Reading Red Kitchen, Care4Calais and Reading Refugee Support Group (despite the fact that they were not overtly ‘Christian’) in using our premises to meet the practical needs of the numerous refugees who were pouring into our town. We also signed up to be a Hong Kong Welcoming Church.

Cutting a long (but exciting) story short these partnerships proved very fruitful, both for the Café and ultimately the Church, with a large number of both Iranian and Hong Kong people (plus various other nationalities) coming along to our first iCaf Session. Marina came along to help us initially (having met with us and talked through an iCaf pilot framework to use for our first 6 weeks) and we were able to make good use of the excellent 2:19 Colloquy cards. We learned ‘on the job’ so to speak. We also decided to work with 2:19 on creating an ‘Abbey iCaf’ logo.

The first 6-week session was a resounding success with a lovely, happy atmosphere, great refreshments, and plenty of laughter as well as learning through conversation. It culminated in a wonderfully traditional British ‘Cream Tea’! Each week I have also had the opportunity to share a brief Gospel thought at the end of each session (in as many innovative ways as I can come up with) and as a result we have seen an influx of new people, particularly from amongst the Iranian and Hong Kong contingent, join our congregation. We have now completed two full courses and are about to launch a third (with already 30 people booked to attend).

We would heartily commend 2:19 to others thinking about launching a similar project. There are real openings out there for churches (however small numerically) to buy into. You don’t need a lot of faith – Jesus told us ‘mustard seed faith’ was enough (Matthew 17:20) – but partnership with others (rather than dogged independence) is essential.

Rev James P Binney BA MTh MPhil
Abbey Baptist Church, Reading
January 2022