The SA priest who gave his all for Zim refugees

JOHANNESBURG - The bishop steps confidently onto a back staircase for a shortcut to the altar inside the Central Methodist Church.

There are no lights in the stairwell, but the graffiti on the walls of the 1800s Wesleyan Building is easily captured in patches of light.

Everywhere, there are scrawled words of affection for a Methodist leader who became one of the most controversial clerics in South Africa — first enduring the wrath of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and then, more recently, of his own church elders.

“Paul Verryn is the only influential bishop in the country, compared to none. Not even compared to Mandela,” one account declares.

Another, in an abandoned office that became a dormitory for the dispossessed, says: “Special thanks for Dr Paul for the huge part that he played in many foreigners who were living here.”

That dormitory, which once heaved with outcasts, is an empty space. It is one of the reasons why Verryn, who gave his last sermon at the inner-city sanctum recently, has given up his position as superintendent. Now he will move back to the church’s Jabavu district, where he has lived for many years.

But even as the five-storey building was emptied this week of more than 1 000 mostly Zimbabweans who used it as a shelter, Verryn’s legend lives on. He survived every attack, including nearly losing his job after the site became overrun by terrified and homeless foreigners in the wake of the xenophobic brutality in 2008.

Furious after he backed a plan to approach the High Court for a curator for dozens of unaccompanied and other foreign minors who had arrived helpless at the church, then-presiding bishop Ivan Abrahams laid charges against him.

Abrahams also suspended Verryn, allegedly spending hundreds of thousands of the church’s rand on court action before it drew a halt in 2010.

Verryn fought back through Lawyers for Human Rights, holding on to his post.

He remained steadfast that, in the absence of any other place for them to go, the vulnerable could continue to stay at the Central Methodist Church.

But, as the building became desperately overcrowded and dangerous, falling into offensive disrepair, his antagonists fuelled scandalous reports.

He says Abrahams has never spoken to him again.

The church finally got its wish, evicting the remaining 500 or so refugees — most of whom have nowhere left to go but the pavements.

“I really have messed this place up,” Verryn remarks as he unlocks the doors to the presbytery. He offers an ironic anecdote about how a relative’s dirty house so disturbed him as a child that he refused to eat or drink there. “And look where I found myself,” he says wryly.

He relates how, after the building’s 10 toilets rapidly became inadequate, the council provided portable units which it placed alongside the Smal Street Mall. But that gesture didn’t come with servicing. One morning, Verryn walked out of the underground parking lot to the stench of what he thought were dead bodies.

“The toilets had exploded,” he says. “That was probably our worst moment.”

The bishop doesn’t seem to notice the slogans supporting him as he steps over the damage. The floors are a ruin. Some of the golden window panes that run around the church are broken. There are ink scribbles on plaques commemorating events in its history.

Now that people no longer cover almost every available spot in just about every room on every floor of the church, the destruction is clear. It may no longer be salvageable. Yet, Verryn and those who championed a supreme act of charity in the face of the city’s inability to find a better solution believe human beings matter more.

Verryn — who went to St Stithians before completing his degree in divinity at Rhodes — relates the final lines of the Siyakudumisa or Te Deum, which is sung especially in black Methodist churches. He quips that some call the Reformation canticle “The Tedium”, “but it can be very beautiful”.

“In thee, O Lord, I have put my trust. Let me never be put to shame (let me never be confounded).”

It’s a line full of meaning for Verryn, who saw how people were suffering.

“Some had come out of situations of humiliation and torture and had really escaped because they felt ‘my life is in danger’.” So the church started taking in a few refugees, including internally displaced South Africans – about 2 000.

“People were even referred here by police, by Social Development, hospitals. For instance, someone would go through a fairly heavy treatment in hospital and the doctors would be anxious about putting them on the street and ask us to help.”

Through Verryn, the church created a home-based care unit. It also established a school in nearby Albert Street after homeless Zimbabwean teachers, who slept on the steps of the church after the government closed the xenophobia camps, approached Verryn.

“They didn’t think that just leaving children, who had found themselves at the church, to do nothing was a good idea. Now our first graduates from university are coming through, and in 2013 we got a 100 percent pass in all subjects. But because of the kind of reception I’ve received, it hasn’t been an easy journey.”

Yet, Verryn has never chosen the easy route. Conscientised by his family’s helper as a child, then by his younger sister who railed against racism, and finally by a St Stithians chaplain, he was determined to be a priest who would try to reveal God’s will on the ground.

He moved into Soweto in 1987 and, horrified by the terrors inflicted on young people by the security police, offered a safe house. A year later, Madikizela-Mandela accused him of sleeping with some of the boys there, before members of her “football club” abducted at least four, ending in the murder of 9-year-old Stompie Seipei.

“There was suspicion that he’d been an informer. At one point, he was even apparently forced into a coffin with a corpse to make him speak. Winnie’s former confidante, the late Xoliswa Falati, was busy interrogating him in my house when I walked into the kitchen, and I’ll never forget seeing this little boy crying at the table… the violation of his person… and I was very unpleasant.

“I said ‘you will stop this, this house will not perpetuate what is happening outside’. And she was beside herself with anger. Then she went to Winnie and said I was sleeping with all these boys.

“It was a difficult beginning,” Verryn admits, “and I was very vulnerable. I had a houseful of people on the run, including Stompie.

“In fact, it was the present premier of Free State, Ace Magashule, and Matthew Chaskalson, who is now an advocate, who brought Stompie to me in this building (the Central Methodist Church).”

Verryn gave harbour to many now regarded as Struggle luminaries, including Fort Calata, who was later murdered by the apartheid state. He battled frequent harassment, including an 18-hour detention at police gunpoint in his house. But nothing would stop him. Perhaps nothing will. Still today, Verryn has 27 people living in his house in Soweto.

“They’re there because they are particularly vulnerable. One man can’t really go out and has to have dark glasses on all the time as he was injected with poison during torture in Zimbabwe. His eyes are constantly running. The flashbacks of his torture are too great to tolerate too much noise, and he has been hugely destabilised.

“It’s not wonderful, because he sleeps in my lounge, and there are eight or nine others sleeping there too, but we thought, instead of him living here in the church where there was so much going on, we’d rather let him come to a slightly more congenial context.”

— The Star


Verryn is hoping to develop the kind of work he’s doing in Marikana, where he’s involved in brokering peace between the community and the police.

“I think 12 years is long enough as a bishop,” he says. “But at times it has been a lonely road, to be honest. The support has been ambivalent.

“One of the senior laypeople said the church would do what it had to do to get the people out of the Central Methodist Church. They haven’t interacted with the people. They haven’t made friends with the people, and that creates a sense in which, for some, going to church is an injection of singing and prayers and a little bit of an escape from reality.

“I know I am being cynical, but I have to wonder whether that kind of thing engages you in any dimension of integrity.”

Comments (3)

Paul is the essence of Christianity as Christ would have us practice in His name. He has been in my home and is the most gracious, kind man one can imagine. His efforts should be emulated across the globe by those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! Amen

Kleis Clissold - 6 January 2015

Thanks Paul, -in our Grace Mugabe i am seeing another cruel Winnie Madikizela in the making. The youth are vulverable-tools to be used.

Referee - 7 January 2015

We, the trained soldiers of the Zimbabwe struggle, who received our "military" training in central Joburg and at the Central Methodist Church, will never forget Bishop Paul Verryn. Because of Mugabe, a lot of people stayed at that Church. Some received their deaths there, what of that guy from Victoria Falls who was stabbed 7 times to his death in 2006. But we came out of there refined on the tactics of life on how to survive under difficult circumstances, and we know that Mugabe can rape and vandalise Zimbabwe but can never rape people's souls. The strength of a people is in the people.

Mashonaland Dickmarsh - 7 January 2015

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