A conference in 2012, “Bridging the Gap”, brought local churches and Christian projects together to consider a more unified response to the rising problems being seen across Middlesbrough and the surrounding area due to the economic recession and cuts to welfare provision. The scale and spread of deprivation in Middlesbrough is amongst the worst in the country; 47% of the town is ranked in the bottom 10% poorest places to live. In these communities up to 59% of children are living in poverty, up to 53% of families are headed by lone parents and in some areas male life expectancy is as low as 68 years. The conference highlighted the need for greater support for churches and projects in their work amongst the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised people in Middlesbrough, stressing the need for greater awareness, information, collaboration and support.
Following the conference ‘Together Middlesbrough & Cleveland’ was formed as a partnership between the Church Urban Fund (CUF) and the Anglican Diocese of York, but working with churches and projects of all denominations. The development of the John Paul Centre to offer support to people in need in the town centre was seen as a key response to the call for churches to work together around tackling issues of poverty.
The John Paul Centre has an excellent reputation as a non-threatening place for people from all walks of life to come and receive hospitality and support. Although long-owned by the Diocese of Middlesbrough in 1983 Bishop Augustine Harris decided to establish a pastoral centre there to tend to the spiritual needs of the town. To commemorate the visit to the UK of the Pope John Paul II the ‘John Paul Centre’ came into being to serve the Catholic community in central Middlesbrough. Initially the centre was looked after by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers and then in 1996 Bishop John Crowley asked the Redemptorist Community to take over this role. They were in residence for 20 years. Those pastoral needs have now been returned to Diocese of Middlesbrough and Fr James Benfield was appointed by Bishop Terry Drainey to tend to them.
Every Saturday lunchtime the Upper Room Project is run by a team of volunteers to offer lunch and a listening ear to around 50 people who are struggling for a variety of reasons. New volunteers are always welcome.
Because of its excellent reputation the Middlesbrough Homelessness Forum recognised that the John Paul Centre is a place where additional support and resources could make a significant difference to people facing homelessness and issues relating to poverty and social exclusion. Accordingly, UK homelessness charity Depaul UK was invited to introduce its own experience and expertise of working in this field by developing its Nightstop operations for Teesside to the building and more latterly the Positive Pathways project has come in to work with people to empower and enable them to emerge from poverty and vulnerability to homelessness by raising aspirations and broadening horizons.
Other projects within the ever expanding operational base of the John Paul Centre are Investors in People and Cultures (IPC), North East Refugee Service (NERS), Methodist Asylum Project (MAP), Straight Forward, Mary Thompson Fund and the Romanian Assembly which all serve to provide an excellent quality and diversity of support to hundreds of individuals and families from all kinds of backgrounds and countries.
With the JPC being located in the heart of Middlesbrough, it has become a focal point for the Diocese of Middlesbrough and its development of its Catholic Social Action Network (CSAN) and is a perfect arena wherein to promote Catholic social teaching and the Common Good. Because so many people access the various projects within the JPC, the staff and volunteers working there have a ready-made point of contact with so many vulnerable people. Both a Food Bank and a Clothes Bank have been set up within the basement area of the building which is utilised by all of the projects thereby promoting integration and community cohesion.
As well as the real material needs, on a day to day basis, the more spiritual requirements of the local community are met by the offering of a daily lunchtime Mass, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A coffee bar provides refreshment and a well stocked repository supplies nourishing reading material as well as Mass cards, statues, rosaries and other sacramentals. All are welcome and if you should like to volunteer in any capacity please contact us here.