Sheffield Jesus Centre is a light, airy building, a sharp contrast to the roaring traffic outside on Hanover Way. Liz is on the front desk today and has just had a visit from a lady from the women’s hostel opposite. Liz tells me the young woman had come to the Jesus Centre and wept as Liz listened to and prayed with her.
“I’ve met lovely people here at the Jesus Centre,” said Liz, “and often they just keep coming. When I’m on reception, I’m the first contact for visitors. Sometimes, like just now, I sense God saying, ‘Talk to that person’.”
The drop-in lounge, with free food and shower and laundry facilities, is closed now for the day but Liz comments on how good it has been to see the visitors take ownership of looking after the Jesus Centre.
Harriet, a mum with four young children, is also a volunteer at the Jesus Centre. Today she is enthusing about ‘Stepping Stones’, a Friday morning group for mums and pre-school children which she runs.
The Jesus Centre is in the heart of Broomhall, a multi-ethnic area of Sheffield with a large Somali community, Harriet explains. Up to 15 kids and 15 mums come each week and nearly all of these are from ethnic minorities and include Chinese, Indians, Afghans, Iranians and Somalis.
The group exists to foster bonds of friendship and support of one another. The children play for just over an hour and then everyone gets together for a snack and a time of singing nursery rhymes. Yes, says Harriet, it’s really working and it’s exciting but the benefits work both ways: both she and the other volunteers have made friends with the visitors, learned about their cultures and how they do their parenting – an enriching experience. In terms of the volunteers, Harriet tells me, “The Jesus Centre has brought us together as we work together”.
Liz runs an art group on a Thursday. Like Harriet, she is enthusiastic: “I love my art group,” she says. “I find it so refreshing. People coming to the session carry lots of need yet, as I lead the group, make friends and listen, I find my own needs are being met. The visitors have started to look after new visitors when they come. They tell me off when I won’t sit down and say, ‘We’ll make the tea, Liz!’”
“Any number from 5 to 15 come and we’ve really got to know each other over the months; often now we invite each other to our houses. We encourage each other’s skills as we paint and draw together. A lady with learning difficulties attends the group; she had no confidence to start with but her art has improved so much and now she’s blossomed as a person because she’s found something she can do. That has encouraged me more than anything.”
I walk upstairs to the purpose-designed training rooms. I am impressed and, looking round, I hear a cheery, “Hello Julia!” I turn and spot Elizabeth, one of our African students from Coventry Jesus Centre. She has recently moved to Sheffield and now attends English class here.
“How are you getting on?” I ask. “They are friendly and helpful here!” she says with a broad smile.
Rosie is the skills teacher. She’s just nipping out in the car to buy a new sewing machine for her group, ‘Grow, Cook and Sew’ and asks me to accompany her – a chance for me to ask her about her vision for this project. The group, she explains, is a community venture to encourage sewing, gardening, healthy eating and cooking. Last week two Chinese ladies taught everyone to cook a Chinese meal. It sounds exciting!
“Is it just for people learning English?” I ask. Not at all, says Rosie but, for some, it’s a perfect opportunity to practise speaking English.
Meanwhile, the café is open, a beautiful panelled Edwardian room with a large stained glass window at one end. Everything looks so clean and well-presented. Asrin, from Iran, is behind the counter today and tells me she has been working for three months as a café volunteer. “I like the atmosphere,” she says, “the people are friendly and I love serving. I’ve improved my English since I began volunteering and made friends. In the future, I want a job in a coffee shop. I’ve learned many skills here.”
Today the ‘Grow, Cook and Sew’ group are cooking bakewell tart. Lucy and Tim are supervising and Rosie wisely leaves them to get on without her. There’s plenty of chatter and laughter. The visitors are clearly at ease and enjoying themselves.
Rosie’s face lights up as she tells me of the pleasure of seeing visitors progress: some, at first, being barely able to function in society and progressing to become contributors. A young man who often now helps lead ‘Grow, Cook and Sew’ first came to the Jesus Centre as a drop-in visitor; he was an ex-prisoner, depressed and needing lots of support. Now both his confidence and employability has greatly increased.
Rosie tells me too of another visitor who originally came to Jesus Centre classes to improve her literacy skills and offered to help a shy young French-Speaking female visitor with almost no English. Although the former’s reading skills are limited, she teaches by showing pictures and conversation. The transformation in the French women’s skills and confidence is amazing and the learning is mutual.
ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes are held several days a week and are also flourishing.
The centre is closing now but not before Rosie tells me of past and future planned events: Gala Days (with cake stalls, a bouncy castle, a charity shop, tugs of war, children’s crafts), music evenings, a Railway Day, barbecues, quiz and games nights, cultural food nights, exhibitions, films, debates and new friends courses designed to introduce people to the Christian faith – all this added to a weekly programme. They are going to be busy, that’s for sure, at Sheffield Jesus Centre, and no doubt stretched. One thing, however, is for sure too – they don’t lack enthusiasm.