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Engaging with Shop and Restaurant Communities

The Plan behind the Pain

After eleven years in the Middle East fruitfully serving the gospel, immersed in the local language and culture, we had to leave quite suddenly. It was a severe blow, and yet part of the recovery process has been a joyful discovery of the many shopkeepers in our city who’ve welcomed us warmly and shown interest in the Scriptures. On two occasions when tailors or falafel men heard me read a carefully-chosen Psalm to them in their own language, without asking my permission they reached for their mobile phones to film this extraordinary phenomenon: the White Man speaking this beautiful poetry in their mother tongue! “I want my wife to hear this,” the manager of one street kitchen explained. “Please come over and visit our family”.

The harvest is plentiful along these multicultural shop and restaurant streets. But the workers are still few. Maybe a paradigm shift in our thinking is being called for, because I’m conscious that the idea of the little parade of shops near our houses – staffed by Afghans, Kurds and Arabs – being a mission field ripe for harvest would prompt in many of our minds the Mosaic thought: ‘Lord, please send someone else’ (Exodus 4:13)!

You may appreciate the context: many of our churches are strong on reaching students and graduates – and running youth clubs to reach families. This is because most of us inhabit that world: we have been students, we work in graduate jobs and we have children. Few British evangelicals have a career as shop or café owners, and many church members have no experience of working in shops, beyond teenage shifts in large retail chains. In any case, Sainsbury’s and Sports Direct are a world away from the small independent shops and restaurants that our diasporic Asian neighbours inhabit. These long hours in a corner shop or roadside van can be lonely and tiring, but a friendly relationship can lead to sharing the gospel- and whereas it can be improper to use office time evangelising an accountant or lawyer at their desk, it is often possible to speak to people in shops and barbers even while they do their work.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Christian preaching or training equipping us to engage with shop communities. In fact, I have chosen this title as a deliberate oxymoron for Western individualists: a shop by its nature is not to us a community at all, it is an impersonal facility for a swift and efficient exchange of goods. But for many non-Westerners, shops are an outflow of their communities: the place where their ethnic group and extended family engages with the rest of society, where children are apprenticed in trade, where fortunes are made or lost and where the homeland is promoted through imported goods and posters.

Sometimes it’s just the shop sign – “Uyghur Restaurant”, “Kurdistan Barber” – that speaks volumes to a world prone to forget ethnic groups that don’t appear in their school atlas of nation states. I smile when I think of the warm welcome I have received in Kurdish shops: the tailor who served me a cup of tea, the newsagent who split a watermelon for me on a hot day. When have I ever been offered a cup of tea at WH Smith?

Specialists and Generalists

So, how can churches work together to reach shop communities? I will suggest we should make use of both the ‘specialist’ and the ‘generalist’. Most of us are generalists, but let’s start with the specialist because they can mobilise the rest of us into more effective engagement on the shopfloor or waiting for the coffee at the kebab van.

The specialist is the returnee missionary who wonderfully already speaks a community language and is glad to utilise their years of hard graft on the foreign field. Or there can be a trainee missionary who is learning some Turkish or Somali, say, with a view to serving in that country. (They very likely can sit in the Turkish shop or café and work at the grammar book while getting conversation practice with the staff as and when they have time to speak, which you’re not really free to do in MacDonald’s or Greggs!)

As someone who spent a decade in Kurdistan and speaks the language fluently, I have found that I can help these shopkeepers by drumming up some fresh custom for them among church members. This is especially so with catering efforts. Our church has hired Syrians to cook a church meal, which both rewarded their hard work and was a great way to honour their culture; we got the same group of women to provide delicious Lebanese cuisine for an 18th birthday meal.

So, now for the generalists: don’t feel you have no role because you know neither their language nor their homeland. Are you good at just being friendly? Can you strike up a kind conversation with your local barber or kebab vendor? Once you are on friendly terms, what might the easy next step be? Could you help their children with homework, or arrange tutoring? Would visiting each other’s homes be out of the question? You build trust one step at a time.

Speaking as a ‘specialist’ here, who knows the doors that can open when you know someone’s heart language, progress for me means a falafel man or a tailor inviting us to visit them at home in the evening. They extend this invitation because they are honoured that I know and love their culture- a culture which the ruling powers back home have wanted to extinguish. If my family can visit theirs, we have considerably deepened the relationship. A further step would be to invite them on a riverside picnic, a trip to the coast or a hike up a fell. For Kurds and Iranians, for example, family outings into the mountains are a crucial part of their national culture, and a shared experience that binds their clan together.

Now for The Awkward Bit?

Now, I do acknowledge that evangelising people in their shops and eateries can be done insensitively. It’s probably not the time for a sit-down Bible Study; busy waiters and proprietors are unlikely to have more than a few minutes to engage in serious conversation before they return to their kitchen and customers. But sharing a short video like The Prophets Story (available in many languages) can enable them to watch on their phone in their own time. Printed Scripture can usually be sourced through CLC by searching for the language, or you can use the YouVersion app to find their preferred language. I often use that app to show them in their mother tongue John 10:10. This verse beautifully showcases Jesus especially to those who are troubled by Islamist violence. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Male & Female Perspectives

At a recent seminar on reaching Muslims one pastor humbly asked: “There are tons of Muslims in our neighbourhood; I see mums at the school gate, but how can I begin to build relationships with these Asian men?” This was a good question and here is a roundabout answer:

Westerners often struggle to understand the sharp dichotomy in Asian thinking between the home and the workplace in terms of gender and domain. Whereas the home is very much the realm of the womenfolk, the shop is where sons and husbands often feel more at ease, even if there’s little gainful employment for them there. Recently I noticed a Punjabi barber shop where a massive pool table had been brought in: presumably Asian men like to hang out and relax together, even if they’re not getting their hair cut!

Although often the shop is the man’s world, that is not always the case. Where a woman stands behind the till we should be aware of how she operates there as a woman, observing unwritten codes of modesty. Years ago, my wife was intentional about getting to know an Asian lady on her shift at the local family shop, going regularly and buying at least something on each visit. Once trust had been established she began helping the kids do their homework- at the back of the shop! Again, this was not Aldi, notice here that though the woman stands behind the till serving men, her identity as a mother is very much in evidence. Anyway, home visits followed and after a couple of years this Pakistani family felt close enough to us to accept the invitation to our wedding service.

This kind of shop visitation has obvious budgetary implications, especially buying restaurant food. Sometimes buying from our neighbourhood shops will cost us more than if we bought online – but it also buys us relational capital. We don’t think twice about spending mission funds on air fares, so why not invest some of our money in building relationships in our local shop and restaurant communities?

Moving forward… on our knees

Over the last thirty years UK churches have made great strides forward in welcoming overseas students; other agencies have raised the profile of refugees. But refugees are only refugees for a period, and then their lives as settled British citizens begins. Some immigrants assimilate and their ethnic origins become merely ‘background’; but many remain part of diasporic communities. They watch Kurdish TV, arrange marriages with girls from back home and eagerly look forward to their next visit to the motherland. The sights, the tastes, the music: they all retain a special place in their affections.

By all means, keep praying for little-reached places like Afghanistan, Kurdistan or Mirpur (the district in Azad Kashmir where many British Pakistanis are from) but be ready for our prayers to be answered with us building relationships in small neighbourhood shops and cafés. Might these be the door the Lord uses to open those harder-to-reach territories back in their homelands? As well as sending missionaries to far-flung places, has your church noticed the shop and restaurant communities right around the corner? Either this could open doors for us to visit these countries or, better still, we should pray that the friends we make in their shops will so embrace the Saviour that they themselves find ways to spread his Good News in their towns and villages.

This article was first published by 'Rob' on the 2:19 Teach to Reach website.


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