Faithful communities come together to transform lives in North Yorkshire

By John Hinman, Trustee of Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, Core Group Member of Caritas Diocese of Middlesbrough 


Over four years ago, the Church Urban Fund and the Anglican Archdiocese of York set up a pioneering community programme, Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, to help those in poverty and in need across Middlesbrough and the borough of Redcar and Cleveland.

Its Board of Trustees is chaired by Bishop Paul Ferguson, Anglican Bishop of Whitby, who wanted to ensure that the programme attained an ecumenical character. I was consequently appointed by Bishop Terry Drainey to represent the Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough on the programme’s Board of Trustees.

At Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, which is a Core Group Member of Caritas Diocese of Middlesbrough, we work with churches, other faiths, charities, local groups and organisations to help transform lives and build flourishing communities. Churches play a keep role in alleviating suffering caused by hardship and poverty, so our work is focussed on communities where people face such challenges.

Through working together, Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists have achieved a great deal in four years. Our tangible contribution to the initiative has been the offer of the John Paul Centre as a community hub for four local charities who were finding it difficult to pay rent at other properties.

At this centre, we support the homeless, those in poverty and refugees. The long-standing ethos of the centre is hard to miss. The slogan splashed across walls and notice boards reads: “Where Strangers Become Friends.”

The work to support refugees and asylum seekers in the area is second to none and the John Paul Centre has two dedicated charities working in this field. For example, the Upper Room Project serves food and the Mary Thompson Fund provides financial support and groceries to meet the critical needs of those who are seeking sanctuary or are settled refugees in the Tees Valley. Without the support of the Diocese of Middlesbrough, both vital charities would be unable to deliver services to this vulnerable group of people.

Several Catholic schools offer support to the John Paul Centre, and we receive support from students at Ampleforth Sixth Form and students from the Middlesbrough College Exclusion Unit, which serves as an example of troubled youngsters giving back to the community.

Downstairs in the basement, we give out hundreds of clothing items donated by two North Yorkshire communities to refugees and people seeking asylum. The gifts are collected by the organisation 2Dales Action for Refugees, involving people living across Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. Over eighty adults and children benefited from the kindness of Dales folk over the last Christmas period, and Tyne Tees Television were on hand to record a news item based on the stories of refugees and their appreciation for the gifts.

To many, the John Paul Centre is both an important social hub and a sanctuary. All of these activities go hand in hand with the spiritual work coordinated by Father James Benfield.

Middlesbrough has some of the poorest wards in the country and the highest recorded figures for child poverty. In Redcar and Cleveland, the community programme is supporting those affected by the closure of the SSI Steelworks. We have two project workers, one an Anglican and one a Catholic, coordinating many community initiatives. These include a programme called Feast of Fun, which served over 5000 meals to children in the summer holidays. This project has now been extended to cover all the annual school holidays. Food poverty is an alarming issue in the area and we have asked Frank Field MP, and others, including local MP’s who have proved to be very supportive, to take action. We also set up a food bank in Middlesbrough and this has expanded six-fold in the last two years.

We also have a thriving programme for the elderly in Christian parishes throughout the area. The association with Mind and Ageing Better has moved forward this year by the appointment of a project worker to work in Christian and non-Christian settings to support the elderly. We call the new programme “Faithfully Ageing Better” – FAB!

It would be appropriate to conclude, and to demonstrate the ecumenical focus at the heart of the work that Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland does, with the following words.

The Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, commended the programme for doing “a huge amount to tackle the issues of poverty in Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland”, and stated that he is “very proud that the Diocese of York, in partnership with Church Urban Fund, has taken a lead in making this possible”.

The Rt Revd Terence Patrick Drainey, Bishop of Middlesbrough and Chair of Caritas Social Action Network, and the Rt Revd Paul Ferguson, Anglican Bishop of Whitby, commented how “it’s wonderful that Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland has already opened up more ways to bring hope to so many people”, and that “in Christ’s name we will continue to work so that people can find a way out of poverty, and have dignity, justice and honour.”

This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 09.06.17.