Monday, June 08, 2009

From “Fashionable Church” to “Den of Iniquity”

The place resembled a train station. People were seated on rows of wooden benches, mounds of blankets, with heaps of clothes and bags next to them. Some blankets, spread on the floor, were makeshift beds, taking up the interior of the church. Inside the chapel, more people were lying on the floor. Even the pulpit was occupied. Several women prepared to go to sleep under the pulpit.

So begins an account of the “once fashionable Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. Our group visited this “den of iniquity” (as the article went on to call it) on June 4, and were greatly privileged to be addressed by Bishop Paul Verryn, whose commitment to the gospel has transformed this church from respectibility to notoriety, giving refuge to 3,200 mostly Zimbabweans fleeing the regime of Robert Mugabe. In so doing, he has brought the principalities and powers to bear on this historic church in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.

As our group entered the building, we immediately realized this was no ordinary church.
Informal traders lined the paths leading to the entrance, while inside the cries of infants could be heard throughout. The awning that sheltered the windows was covered in drying laundry, and as we sat in the sanctuary the sight of clothes flapping in the breeze silhouetted against the stained glass conveying stories from the life of Jesus. No ordinary church indeed. Central Methodist is probably the only church in the world that has resident representatives of Medicines Sans Frontiers. And it’s also probably the only church in the world where every step one takes—in corridors, doorways, and Sunday School rooms—represented space for a bed. Anyway, we waited… and waited for Verryn, who finally emerged breathlessly from his office. This time there had “only been ten people” waiting for him on his arrival at the church. He asked that space be cleared for us in the chapel, and we sat in rapt attention as he spoke (pic on right).

I knew Verryn only by reputation, though I’d had strong memories of his testimony before the TRC in the “Mandela United Football Club” hearings back in 1997. There he spoke tearfully of his inability to protect 13-year-old Stompie Sepei—in whose murder Winnie Mandela was implicated. Verryn had been pastor to the Mandelas in Soweto at a time when whites were as forbidden to live in that sprawling black township as blacks were from living in white Johannesburg. His credentials as an anti-apartheid icon were even then incontestable, officiating as he had at the funerals of activists during his first charge in the highly politicized Eastern Cape, and then as a pastor in the politicized hotbed of Soweto during the height of the liberation struggle. The poor have never been “pictures” to Verryn. He has lived and worked in their midst for his entire ministry. Opening the doors of Central Methodist to the poor is an action in basic continuity with his life story.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. With thousands sleeping in such close promixity, and fearing anxiously for their lives outside the church, it’s not surprising to hear that “every conceivable social problem happens in this building.” Indeed, the residents of Central Methodist represent a microcosm of humanity-in-exile. Rules have been formulated in order to faciliate peaceable living together: no drinking (two alcohol-related murders have occurred), smoking, fighting, stealing, and no sex outside of marriage. These don’t represent an arbitrary moral code, but rather the minimal conditions under which conflict and violence can be curbed. Community leaders, who also addressed our group, are appointed to ensure these rules are followed. A strict curfew is observed, after which the church doors are closed and a worship meeting takes place.

But this is no ordinary worship meeting in such an extraordinary church. It’s a time for gathering and organizing. Announcements concerning employment opportunities are made (the church functions as an informal job agency) and other matters concerning the life of the community are addressed. Once a week, this meeting takes the form of a service of healing. The most recent of these featured an explosion of energy as dancers dramatizing the pain of the Aids pandemic encircled the communion table—as Verryn said, the exact place where Aids should be addressed. Part of the healing of this ecumenical, “African orthodox” church, according to a community leader named Ambrose is the social networking in which displaced people are incorporated into a body social.

Recalling his experience during the years of apartheid, Verryn confesses to a mistrust of police. And indeed this has been borne out—not only in the daily harrassment and arbitrary arrest of migrants (legal or not), but in police raids on the church itself. One particularly brutal event took place in January, 2008. Some 1,500 refugees were arrested in a raid on the church. The Bishop himself was dragged backwards down the stairs as police searched for weapons and contraband, finding none. “In searching for criminals,” he said, “they became criminals.” And this was publically demonstrated. For Verryn had already alerted the world media, and the events were broadcast all over the world the next day, causing serious embarrassment to the state. Ambrose said that the community tries to work with the police, though time after time the police will be called on to arrest troublemakers who disrupt the life of the community, only to find them being released and returned to make more mischief. Indeed it seems that there are agents provocateurs that have infiltrated the community. This calls for constant vigilance, but also names the vulnerability of life at Central Methodist.

But it’s not only the police and other authorities that Verryn indicts. It’s the South African nation, of which 80 percent claim to be Christians. If this seems harsh, one must remember that four months after the January raids, and in spite of his warnings, xenophobic violence was spreading across the country, leaving 100 dead in its wake, and countless thousands homeless and unemployed. According to the recent report of the South African Migration Project, “South Africa exhibits its levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world.” Despite holding arguably the most progressive constitution in the world, and representing an international icon of peaceful transition and racial reconciliation, “with the exception of treatment for Aids, at least two-thirds of South Africans still feel that irregular migrants to the country should be extended no rights or protections.” Ironically, while the world was marvelling at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, xenophobic attitudes were hardening, and when these attitudes turned into action, “xenophobic thugs discovered they could act with virtual impunity.” In my experience, South Africans had always lived with a strong sense of exceptionalism (“are you going to see Africa while you’re here?” was a question sometimes asked of me when I lived in Cape Town). “Nation-building”, it seems, had only exacerbated the sense of “us” against “them”, spreading that exceptionalism across racial divides. On the basis of its research, the report concludes damningly: “xenophobia and hostility to (particularly) Africans is not the preserve of a lunatic fringe but represents the convictions of the majority of citizens. When one journalist wrote recently that ‘we are all guilty’, he was speaking truth to power.”

Central Methodist also speaks truth to power. Its actions of radical hospitality and countercultural welcome earn the ire of police, media, and the public. Its neighbours are not happy. This doesn’t phase Verryn, who notes that the church should discriminate against the well-off, and consequently “ought always to be arguing with lawyers.” Neither do the numerous death threats he receives daunt him. Verryn is simply engaged in performing the gospel story, remapping and remaking space to welcome and include vulnerable outsiders. A “round peg” no longer “fitting into” the “square hole” role given it by society, the church has become radically visible—and vulnerable. But this only reminds us of what the church is called, in every locality, to be.

South African theologian Neville Richardson, reflecting on the example of Central Methodist Church, invokes two important theologians: Stanley Hauerwas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From Hauerwas: “The kingdom of love initiated by Jesus is also the kingdom of love which is most clearly embodied in the Christian obligation to be hospitable. We are a community on principle ready to share our meal with the stranger. Moreover we must be a people who have hospitable selves—we must be ready to be stretched by what we know not.” Bonhoeffer might ”glimpse [in this “religionless Christianity”] an almost unrecognizable church, a church that exists not only for itself, but for others, a witness to Christ the man for others, the crucified Christ—Christ existing as community today.”

As we filed out of Central Methodist Church, the sun had gone down, and we were meeting throngs of people moving toward the church. Their day’s work (or day’s looking for work) done, they were preparing to settle in for the long night. But in that night, the light of Jesus Christ was shining. And they were returning, in the best—temporary—sense of the word, home.

Works Cited

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Social Ethics. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1983.
“Place of Worship Now Den of Iniquity.” The Star (Johannesburg) 2006, June 20 2006: 15.
Richardson, Neville. “Sanctorum Communio in a Time of Reconstruction? Theological Pointers for the Church in South Africa.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 127 (Mar 2007): 96–115.
South African Migration Project. The Perfect Storm: The Realities of Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa. Res. rept. Series ed Jonathan Crush. Migration Policy Series no. 50. Cape Town; Kingston: IDASA; Southern African Research Centre, Queens University, 2008.


Ali said...

Great write-up of a moving story. I'm enjoying following your posts!

Claudia said...

Thanks Steve, for writing so beautifully about this incredible experience. It was both inspiring and convicting to be there.

Stephen Martin said...

Thanks, Claudia. It was great to see you again!