Why an English-speaking community?

It's not just about language

12. October 2020In Vision, SocietyBy Karsten Risseeuw8 Minutes

From the beginning All Souls has been established as an English-speaking community. That was five years ago. What kind of people make up the fabric of our community today? Are these the people that were originally envisioned? Looking back one can see what counts, who joins – and it is not just about language.

This is an insight based on personal observations. When I joined All Souls, it had started only weeks before. That is five years ago. At the time it was a project by the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of St. Gallen, who started it as an English-speaking community, with native English speakers (expats) in mind. Three years later, the community was thriving and moved from the project phase to a more permanent “congregation” idea, even though it has not the status of a regular «Kirchgemeinde». That was two years ago.

People who join our community

Over the course of these past five years many people came, while others left. We adapted. If you look back you see that the expats once envisioned are almost absent. It was one of the assumptions of the beginning, which proved not to be true. St. Gallen probably has not enough expats looking for an English-speaking church. Nevertheless, there is a need for an English-speaking community and probably more than that. The reality is much more complex. Let me introduce you to that reality.

People attending our services come from all over the world. Even though they are not expats, they live here and have reasons to join All Souls. You will find native English-speakers, but also people whose native languages are not spoken here. English for them is the best available alternative. That might be true for people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East or South America. And while expats tend to live here just for a few years, we see foreigners with a permanent residence attending, as well as students, who are in St. Gallen just for a few months.

I am not a native English speaker. I am Dutch. I have a permanent residence permit and I am well integrated in Swiss society. I speak Swiss German fluently. Joining All Souls is not because I do not speak Swiss German, but because I choose to join this community. There are reasons beyond language.

Native Swiss people are joining as well. Sometimes they just love to hear another language, or they probably have been living outside Switzerland for some time, even found a way into Church while being abroad. They might feel more closely connected to an English-speaking church for that reason. Others married a Swiss spouse, thus found themselves being part of Swiss society, but enjoy hearing and speaking their native tongue.

I strongly believe that multilingual offerings are part of today’s society and form a valuable contribution to the well-being of many people.

Adding culture to the mix

Martin Buber, the famous Jewish philosopher, wrote that language is not in a person, it’s the person being in the language. Language is not just something you speak, but it is something you breathe and live in. Language is one of the most intimate expressions of culture. By switching a language, you switch the culture.

Culture is another important component of being a foreign-language-community. By speaking English, you enable people to switch the language and by that also to switch experience to another kind of culture. Swiss citizens actively participate to experience that. As an international community, it is not about one specific English or American culture in comparison to the local culture, but it is a welcoming home to many cultures, where people interact and thrive together. We are English-speaking, but we are also a melting pot.

As in any fellowship, the extent to which people integrate is always a personal choice. Those regularly attending enable others to simply join and celebrate with us. All Souls therefor is not just a fellowship for those within, but also for those loosely attached or outside the community. It is the culture of a community, the expression of openness towards people of all walks of life and understandings.

Adding the religious background to the mix

Let’s get one step further. Language and culture are important, but there is more to consider. People joining All Souls have all kinds of religious backgrounds. Some are from the Roman Catholic Church, others from the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church, again others have a free church background, some consider themselves as post-denominational or even to be atheist. To be a community means to be in a process together, where we embrace questions of faith just as questions about life or about society.

We are a church. There is no doubt about that. We have an Evangelical Reformed background. That is clearly wanted. We are a faith-based community and this is very much alive. Christ is at our center. Our culture though is not a monoculture, but a diverse culture, enabled through the English language and the diverse cultures, challenges and backgrounds of the people attending. It is a fertile soil to grow new perspectives, to evaluate what works best and to become the community we want to be.

An open mind

I started with the question: Why an English-speaking community? My personal answer is, that it is not just about the language, but about culture as well. Far from being a copy-and-paste kind of community, where we take old concepts as they are, we are dedicated to find out how church works, with an open mind toward both old and new concepts. The church, that’s you and me, everyone contributing something of value. In this unique constellation, English serves us well.

The percentage of foreigners in the Canton of St. Gallen is roughly 24% (2019), not including those who already became a Swiss citizen.
Source: https://www.sg.ch/ueber-den-kanton-st-gallen/statistik/themen/B01/wohnbevoelkerung.html