Last month Bishop Paul Verryn was suspended from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Bishop Verryn was a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner and has in recent years become well-known for opening the doors of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg to Zimbabwean refugees.
About 2,000 displaced Zimbabweans sleep in the church every night. Everyone seems to agree that this stretches the capacities of the church and its resources to a breaking point. South African authorities have claimed that the church has become a health and sanitation hazard, and there are rumours that some children have been sexually abused in the church.
He has been charged with transgressing the Laws and Discipline (L&D) of the Church – essentially the constitution of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
The church’s specific gripe with Verryn seems to be that ‘Verryn applied to the high court last year in a bid to get a curator appointed for unaccompanied minors living at the church.’
Verryn acted without the permission of the Methodist Church in doing this.
From afar, this seems like a trifling technicality – just another example of out-of-touch church authorities interfering with someone who is ‘being Jesus’ to the poor. But when the surface of the controversy is scratched, other issues emerge. The Mail & Guardian reports that,
Last October, the Gauteng legislature’s health and social development portfolio committee called for the closure of the church.
Following a visit to the building, chairperson Molebatsi Bopape said at the time: "Children are being exposed to abuse, babies are sleeping on the floor … the place is so filthy that we couldn’t even breathe."
The controversy has also stirred up rumours that Verryn himself has been involved with abuse, although this remains unproven.
Further, there does not seem to be any other place for the refugees to go and many refuse to leave the church, where they have received shelter and skills training.
The Mail and Guardian also quotes Jonathan Whittall of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), who ‘said he believes the attack on Verryn and the church is another form of intimidation of the Zimbabwean refugee population.’
“Government is not responding to the needs of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa … and the [Central Methodist Mission] church is a very visible place where those failures are being exposed.”
People outside of southern Africa – especially football fans – should be bothered by this because there are accusations that the authorities are trying to ‘hide’ the poor and the refugees from visitors coming to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.
The churches in South Africa have had a history of not only speaking with a ‘prophetic’ voice about injustice, but of trying to do something about it.
Verryn’s suspension highlights some of the difficulties and complexities of that calling, and raises questions not just for Christians in South Africa but further afield.
- How do the churches – whether it’s in South Africa or on this island – treat the immigrants and refugees who arrive on their doorsteps?
- How can the churches not only contribute to meeting the immediate needs of immigrants and refugees, but also influence government policy in a direction that is more just? (In this, churches on this island don’t have to take the same sort of risks that Verryn seems to have had to take with his own denomination and the governmental authorities.)
- What should Christians do when their resources have reached the absolute limit and yet desperate need remains?
The Verryn case remains unresolved, but it calls all Christians to reflect on the cost, controversy and complexity of a prophetic faith.
(Photo, Verryn blessing Zimbabwean refugees in the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg. Photo sourced from the Central Methodists Church and Bishop Paul Verryn Facebook fan page.)