This striking account tells the story of how the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg and its controversial Bishop Paul Verryn came to offer refuge to people who had nowhere else to turn. Xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa in May 2008 and the threat of it spreading to Central Methodist Church became very real—already there were over a thousand migrants living in the church, most of them having fled across the Zimbabwe border in search of a life beyond poverty and political oppression. Every square inch was occupied. Christa Kuljian fluently combines many elements to share this remarkable experience openly: interviews with members of the refugee community, residents of the church, and key figures who include the head of Central Methodist; historical material on the church and its role in the city since the early years; and an understanding of urban dynamics, migrancy, and South African politics. Central Methodist became a visible reminder of the challenges facing Johannesburg and South Africa—such as poverty, migration, xenophobia, and policing—and this is the complex and compelling history of how it happened.
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About the Author
Christa Kuljian is a freelance writer and the recipient of the Ruth First Fellowship at the journalism program of the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the former director of the C. S. Mott Foundation in South Africa, a former visiting research fellow at the Johannesburg-based Centre for Policy Studies, a trustee of the Eugene Saldanha Memorial Fund, and a senior fellow of Synergos. She has also served on several boards, including the Southern Africa Grantmakers Association and the U.S.–South Africa Fulbright Commission.
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How an Inner-city Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk
By Christa Kuljian
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2013 Christa Kuljian
All rights reserved.
Friday Night Refugee Meeting
On a chilly April evening in 2010 the entrance to the five-storey Central Methodist Church building in downtown Johannesburg was crowded with people buying supper. Outside the entrance, women sat behind low tables, selling chicken and spinach, pap and gravy, sweets, oranges, snacks and coffee. Their stalls were pressed against a palisade fence that ran parallel to the front wall of the church, creating a corridor lit only by streetlights some distance away, a long narrow space that was filled with people jostling past each other in the hustle-bustle atmosphere of a busy street market. I walked slowly along the corridor, easing my way past the stalls, until I reached the front door. The door opened onto a large foyer that itself resembled an indoor food market at a train station. The smell of vetkoek and oil, food waste, damp and sweat hung heavily in the air. My destination was the third floor but with two divergent flights of stairs in front of me, I wasn't sure which way to go. Noticing my hesitation, a security guard assigned a young man to escort me.
I had called Bishop Paul Verryn to say that I wanted to learn more about this church, which had offered accommodation to the homeless for several years and which had attracted a great deal of negative attention in the media over that time. The building was viewed by many as only an eyesore and a problem, but for migrants into the city from elsewhere in South Africa and many other countries on the continent, and especially for people from Zimbabwe, it had become a refuge, a haven and a home. I had told Verryn that I was hoping to write a long article about the church and that I had heard about its Friday night refugee meetings that were held there every week. My request was to attend as an observer and the Bishop had agreed. I was to meet him in his office on the third floor.
The young man and I threaded our way through the scores of people sitting on the set of stairs to the right. We walked past men, women and children standing in groups on the dimly lit first floor. Instead of pushing open a door, my guide stepped casually through its frame where I imagined a central glass panel used to be. I followed gingerly. We entered a stairwell and then climbed in near darkness up several more flights of stairs until we finally arrived at Verryn's office. I was a little out of breath and wondered whether I would find my way out again. As I sat on a sunken couch in the waiting room, a small grey mouse scuttled by. There were several other people waiting as well but, to my slight discomfort, I was led into the office ahead of them.
Verryn's office had the look and feel of a storage room. There were piles of boxes everywhere, a coffee table whose surface was completely obscured by books and papers and, on the floor leaning against the far wall, a large painting of a biblical scene which I thought I recognised as a Rembrandt reproduction. To the left was a desk and on the right a sitting area with a faded grey couch and two matching chairs. Bishop Verryn came forward to shake my hand. "We get a lot of journalists and researchers here," he said. "The Friday night meeting is an opportunity for visitors to introduce themselves to the community. It's important for you to tell them about your plans."
Verryn was in his late fifties, of medium height, with greying hair, glasses and a beard. He looked as if he could be a guitar-playing folksinger from California. He had in fact been suspended three months earlier by the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, but given his presence at his office at 7pm on a Friday night, one wouldn't have guessed.
Verryn's welcoming manner and calm serenity belied another truth about him. It would be fair to say that for those people who were adults during the height of apartheid in South Africa, Paul Verryn was a household name. His past encompassed much about the political struggle against apartheid. His name evoked memories of the trauma and violence of the late 1980s, and especially of the horrific tragedy of Stompie Seipei, a young man to whom Verryn had once offered shelter. Verryn's name would be forever intertwined with the names of Stompie Seipei and Winnie Mandela.
But that was over 20 years before my first meeting with him and Verryn had been through a lot since then. Offering refuge and shelter to people in need continued to be one of his defining qualities, and his arrival at the helm of Central Methodist Church in 1997 ushered in an era of providing not only political refuge, but also physical shelter and accommodation to the homeless and the destitute. From many countries on the continent, including South Africa itself, people would find their way to the church. It was those who were fleeing from political and economic ruin in Zimbabwe, especially, who came and found a place that would take them in.
Paul Verryn's name had flashed again in the newspapers in May 2008 when the "xenophobic" violence had hit South Africa and it was all over the media, which was when Central Methodist caught my own attention for the first time. Like many others, I was astonished to discover that the church had been providing refuge and accommodation for years already and that there were over a thousand people living in the building in 2008. The church and Bishop Verryn had become greatly controversial as a result. All this made me wonder. How had over a thousand people come to live in a church? What role had Bishop Verryn played in their finding accommodation there? What were the circumstances under which each foreign resident had come to Johannesburg, and what were their hopes for the future?
Still it took me two years before I finally got my act together, in April 2010, and I visited the church for the first time. Now that I had finally got here, I had no idea what lay ahead of me in my efforts to find the answers to my questions.
"Okay, let's go," Paul Verryn said after we had shaken hands, and "I'll be back" to the people still waiting patiently to see him.
I had a picture in my mind that we were probably heading to a small conference room elsewhere in the church where I would be required to introduce myself to a handful of people who were involved with Central Methodist and tell them about my writing plans. I was in for a rude awakening. I followed the Bishop down to the first floor where he led me into the main room of worship in the church, which I later learned was known as the sanctuary, and that's where he left me. At a glance I reckoned there were already about 500 people sitting in the pews.
Verryn strode to the front where he sat down at a wooden table on the dais in front of the pulpit. There was a large gold cross on the wall behind him. He was joined by a petite woman wearing a silk shirt and highly polished boots. She held a notebook in her hands, her arms resting on the edge of the table. This, I would soon discover, was Elizabeth Cheza, a resident at the church since 2006. In time I would get to know Elizabeth and understand the difficult circumstances that, as with so many others, had precipitated her journey south from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
Between the main floor and the gallery above, I guessed the room could seat over a thousand people. As I stood uncertainly, I watched several men in threadbare clothing walking in carrying flattened cardboard boxes under their arms, while women and children sat close together towards the front and a group of boisterous toddlers played near the pulpit. I noticed that the green carpet was frayed, that many of the seats in the pews were broken and the lighting was poor. A set of stained glass windows on one wall let in a small amount of light from the street.
I took a seat on the aisle. One person coughed, then another. Then there was a cacophony of coughing. Someone handed me a copy of the minutes from last week's meeting. Minutes? I hadn't expected minutes. Actually, I hadn't expected this at all. It was starting to sink in that this was the refugee meeting itself, the Friday night meeting to which every single one of the thousand current residents was invited and that I would be introducing myself to a crowd, not to a select few. I looked around nervously. The meeting was about to begin.
One at a time, over 20 men and women came forward and gave presentations about various ongoing projects at the church. These included a pre-school, adult education, computer training, sewing, book club, and drama. I was surprised that so much activity was under way among the church's residents and began quickly to realise how little I knew.
Then Paul Verryn motioned me to come forward. I walked up the steps onto the dais and paused. Hundreds of expectant faces gazed back at me. I took a deep breath and introduced myself.
"I would like to spend time at the church to learn from your experiences," I said. "I would like to try to write about all that has happened here over the past few years. I'm not a journalist, so I won't be writing just one news article. I'd like to write something longer." Without a microphone, I had to work hard to project my voice out to the huge group of people listening to me, many of whom, to my relief, were now looking up with interest. "You can tell from my accent," I continued, "that I'm from the States, but I've lived in South Africa for more than twenty years and I've worked with many NGOs." I took another breath. "Now I have started writing stories."
After Verryn closed the meeting with a prayer, I thought we might at least have a short follow-up conversation, but he disappeared out of a side door and I did not see him again. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when several people came over to talk to me. My first refugee meeting had introduced me to a whole new community of people, many of whose extraordinary stories I would learn over the coming months. My long article was going to get a lot longer.
On my second Friday night meeting I went straight to the sanctuary on the first floor. This time I didn't have to introduce myself to the gathering, but I continued to meet new people. Before the meeting started I bumped into Elizabeth Cheza. "Oh, you've come back," she said in an energetic voice. "How is it going?" She told me that in addition to taking the Friday night minutes, she also worked as the secretary at the Albert Street School. This school, now educating some 500 children, had been started by Central Methodist in July 2008 and drew some of its learners and most of its staff from residents and former residents at the church. I also met Freedom Chivima, another Zimbabwean and a plumber by profession. Freedom was a former resident and he boasted a brown belt in karate. He came back to the church every week night to hold karate classes.
This evening sanitation was a key topic. A tall, lanky resident named Ambrose Mapiravana, who was also head of security, stood up, walked to the front of the sanctuary and addressed the audience sternly. "I am not very happy with the rate at which we are destroying our toilets," he announced. "Maybe the blame is on the security for being lenient with you. We need to sustain life in this building."
Verryn clearly agreed with him. "I've spoken more about toilets and plumbing in this church than I have about Jesus," he said. Then, pounding the table with his fist, he said: "I don't understand how people go to the toilet and get angry with the toilet. Who puts oil and pap or sadza in the sink? I'm not prepared to tolerate this vandalism any more. From now on, we are going to have security in the toilets. You'll close the door and security will listen to what you're doing in there. I got this idea from the Rosebank Mall."
Verryn proceeded to pace slowly back and forth along the platform. "Let me review what Médecins Sans Frontières has told you. In order to prevent cholera, there are five 'Fs' we have to remember. Food. Fluids. Fingers. Faeces. Flies." He stopped and looked at the crowd. "Are you with me?" He waited for nods of approval and then started pacing again. "We must applaud MSF. They have been handling the plumbing in the building since September last year. But now they will no longer be overseeing the toilets so it will be the community that is responsible. Today we did a walkabout with MSF and the drains and the toilet between the third and fourth floors are blocked. We paid a R49 000 water bill yesterday and we didn't get one cent from the City of Joburg."
I was impressed by how many organisations worked with and visited the church on a regular basis. Besides Médecins Sans Frontières, which ran a clinic on the ground floor, there were the Solidarity Peace Trust and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, both of which had a regular place on the agenda, using these meetings as their opportunity to communicate with the residents. Some Friday night meetings included cultural presentations as well – a skit from the drama group, a poetry reading, or a karate demonstration.
But tonight Verryn wasn't finished with the bad news. Someone, a resident of the church, he said, had stolen money from the blind community. He had given an office in the building to The Blind Association, out of which they conducted their business. Consisting predominantly of blind people from Zimbabwe, they had been raising money to hire a bus so that those blind people begging on the street corners of Johannesburg could go back to Zimbabwe if they chose to do so. With difficulty they had raised R24 800 and now the cash had disappeared. "It's disgraceful that anyone from this building did this," Verryn said. "But the blind community is not as blind as you think they are. They are not stupid." He then reported that the thief had been identified and arrested, but that the money was still missing. I wondered who could have done such a callous thing.
As before, the Bishop ended the meeting with a prayer at about 9:30pm and, as before, he left out of the side door and I did not see him again. The next thing I knew, the meeting had morphed into a dance performance on stage, complete with sound system and a flashing disco light.
I exited out of a side door myself and found that I was in a dark passage, having to step around people's belongings and over their heads as they readied themselves for bed. Residents were laying their mats and blankets on the floor outside the sanctuary and very soon there was no place to walk. Those flattened cardboard boxes I had seen so many of the men carrying into the meetings, I realised, served as people's beds. I would also learn that there were designated rooms for women and children and for married couples. The landings and stairs had now become bedrooms, with clothes hanging over the railings, and I saw a church transforming into an informal settlement as I watched.
Over the following months I attended as many meetings as I could, gradually getting to know the routines and the issues and meeting more residents and hearing about their lives. Each meeting would begin with Bishop Verryn reporting on any media coverage the building had received during the past week, as well as sharing a list of visitors who had been to the church. The many different activities that the church and its residents were engaged with were regularly reported on – adult education, the Albert Street School, the crèche in the basement called For the Love of Children, or FLOC, which had been started way back in 1978, computer training, sewing, hotel and catering training, book club, dance and drama, soccer and karate. Each week there were presentations relating to the ongoing projects and the platform was used to discuss any particular issues that might have arisen during the week – commonly, security in the building, job opportunities, and the challenge of the toilets. After each presentation Verryn would ask for questions.
The Friday night refugee meetings had started formally in early 2006 when the number of people living in the church had increased to over 300. Regular meetings were an effort to create some order amidst the growing chaos and to provide greater social cohesion. At that time, the church instituted eight rules for residents. No smoking. No drinking. No fighting. No stealing. No sex in the building unless you were in the married couples' accommodation. Keep yourself and your area clean and attend a service every night at 7pm. Lastly, the church required that all residents be involved in at least one educational activity. Many people were struggling to find jobs during the week, so the Friday night meetings were also a social gathering when they would head down to the foyer to compare notes, talk to one another or buy something to eat.
At each meeting there would be new things for me to absorb. For example, I learned that since the computer classes had started in 2007, 1 035 people had finished the course, passed an exam and received a certificate.
On one Friday night in May, with the 2010 Soccer World Cup in July around the corner and the world's attention becoming more and more focused on South Africa as host nation, security was the hot topic (as was often the case). Ambrose Mapiravana expressed concern about people being arrested in a general drive to "clean up" the city. "Police are back on the street arresting people," he warned. "You should be inside the building early so the police don't find you outside at night." There were plans for an anti-xenophobia soccer match, in the hope that this would promote goodwill in the face of concerns that xenophobic violence could return. Memories of 2008 were still strong among those residents who had been in the church at the time, and even those who had not been there could relate to the stories.
Excerpted from Sanctuary by Christa Kuljian. Copyright © 2013 Christa Kuljian. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One Friday Night Refugee Meeting,
Two A Clear Voice to Take on the Powers,
Three An Unexpected Thunderstorm,
Four The Rise and Fall of Central Hall Meetings at Central Methodist – 2010,
Five Reverend Peter Storey and the Apartheid City,
Six Offering Political Refuge at Central,
Seven The Tragedy of Stompie Seipei Meetings at Central Methodist – 2010,
Eight Son of Soweto,
Nine Reverend Mvume Dandala and the Quest for Peace,
Ten Bishop Paul Verryn Appears before the Truth Commission Meetings at Central Methodist – 2010,
Eleven Changing City, Changing Congregation,
Twelve The First Residents,
Thirteen A Murder in the Church Meetings at Central Methodist – 2010,
Fourteen A Ray of Hope,
Fifteen The Thunderstorm Left Behind More than a Flood,
Sixteen "A Hostile, Complex Situation" Meetings at Central Methodist – 2011,
Seventeen Death Threat Comes for the Bishop,
Eighteen Arrested for Loitering,
Nineteen Sexual Favours for a Toothbrush Meetings at Central Methodist – 2011,
Twenty "The Horror that We Saw",
Twenty-one The Debate over the Children,
Twenty-three Ann Skelton to the Rescue Meetings at Central Methodist – 2011,
Twenty-four "Is this Boat Going to Sink?",
Twenty-five The Tip of the Iceberg,
Twenty-six Conflict within the Methodist Church,
Twenty-seven Life (and Death) Goes on Inside Central Meetings at Central Methodist – 2011,
Twenty-eight Sjamboks at Marabastad,
Twenty-nine The Axe and the Tree,
Thirty Some Healing and Some Nuptials,
Thirty-one Friday Night Refugee Meetings Interviews, References and Notes,