Paul Cartwright describes the work of a project in South Yorkshire that provides many forms of support for local people marginalized by social inequality
‘Good morning, Romero Project, how can we help?’
This is the response that can sometimes be heard to the psalms during Morning Prayer in the Parish of St Helen, Athersley, as the priests and the people join together to say the Office and workers from the Romero Project begin the morning’s work.
The Romero Project was founded in October 2004, and caters for local residents in an area of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, within the Wakefield Diocese. Like so many other parishes it has experienced a great deal of social and urban deprivation particularly since the demise of the coal mining industry, and as a result of this the project was born following a feasibility study by an independent consultancy company which identified a need for such social action within the Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council Ward of St Helen.
One of the great things about the Catholic movement both in England and throughout the world is its concern with living the Social Gospel. Throughout history Catholic priests and parishioners have often found themselves working in areas which were historically called slums, and which today we would recognize as experiencing ongoing social inequality; areas where there are high unemployment rates, few job opportunities, poor health and education, and an overall feeling of worthlessness amongst the people who live there, and this was no different for the Parish of St Helen. It was a well-recognized fact that people in the area were falling through the social safety net and as a result of the vision of its parish priest, Canon Rodney Marshall, and the existing Roundhouse Community Partnership, the Romero Project was born.
The baptistery in the 1954-built church became a kitchen; a building project took place at the rear of the church to form a narthex where people could meet and an office was made where people could receive private consultation. This was the beginning of a project, which was opened and blessed by Bishop Tony Pontefract, and which was to become a recognized beacon of good practice by the Wakefield Diocese. The project’s work has been recognized by international visitors during their own visits to the diocese as an example of the Church living the Gospel and outpouring Christ’s love for humanity upon society. The project was also pleased to be recognized in a recent visit by the Archbishop of York when he toured the diocese, and it was great to see him wearing his Romero Pectoral Cross!
‘Aspire to be more’
The project was named after Archbishop Oscar Romero who was the Archbishop of San Salvador during El Salvador’s terrible civil war. The Archbishop will be remembered for his tremendous work in fighting for equality and challenging those in power on behalf of the poor, as well as encouraging all Christians to work for justice. This care for the poor led to Archbishop Romero paying the ultimate price when he was shot dead whilst saying mass in the chapel of the Cancer Hospital in 1980, but one quotation from the Archbishop which sums up the philosophy of the project is ‘Don’t aspire to have more, but to be more’.
The project seeks to help people be more by removing some of the many barriers which prevent them from being the kind of people God created them to be and enjoying the fullness of life which Christ came to bring.
It has been said that the Romero Project has achieved so much with so little resources. It employs two members of staff, Caroline Parker and Margaret Hey, one of whom is also a qualified counsellor who provides counselling services when required, as well as having the support of a faithful band of volunteers (some of whom are members of the church congregation). The project also co-ordinates several community services to ensure that where people need help they get it. Partnership agencies include:
Debt management advice
The Citizens Advice Bureau
Local newspaper group
Local social enterprise group
Age ConcernWelfare Rights
Advice Employment advice
Lack of funding
The Romero Project has seen its work in the community continue to increase over recent times due to the current period of austerity, and it has provided assistance to those from outside the parish area who had no one else to turn to.
The staff are dedicated to providing a service to all and will never turn people away, but funding has been dramatically cut and it is anticipated that the project will end later this year unless further funding can be found. The people in the community who access the services are not asked to pay for the help, but occasionally some will return with a packet of biscuits or jar of coffee to say thank you, having appreciated receiving the same during their visit and support.
So if you are a Fairy Godmother reading this article and are able to provide support to a much-needed service in one of the most deprived areas in the Wakefield Diocese, you know where we are – if not, please commit the Romero project and the work that it does to your prayers! ND