“A Sanctuary Torn Asunder,” City Press

For 14 years, the Central Methodist Church housed the homeless, but now they have nowhere to go

The Central Methodist Church wasn’t perfect, but it provided hope to thousands of people in need. The fate of these people – and those who have yet to arrive in Joburg – hangs in the balance after the church shut down its refugee ministry. Pictures: Leon Sadiki, Elizabeth Sejake, Lebohang Mashiloane

On the morning of January 22, I have an appointment to meet the new superintendent minister at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, Reverend Ndumiso Ncombo, who is Bishop Paul Verryn’s successor.

Walking past the Small Street Mall, I see that the bright yellow sign Freedom Chivima hung years ago above the entrance of the church to advertise his karate lessons is gone.

The fence that was erected in 2009 to prevent people from sleeping in the mall is still there. But there is no longer a row of people standing behind it, reaching through to sell socks or hats or prayer beads. No one is sitting in front of the church getting their hair braided.

In the past, the church housed thousands of residents and it was often an effort to walk through the large groups of people at the entrance and get into the building and up the stairs. That was a journey I made hundreds of times over the five years I researched and wrote Sanctuary.

December 31 marked Verryn’s last day as superintendent minister, and the new leadership brought an end to the refugee ministry at the church.

On the day of my appointment with Ncombo, the new expandable security gates are closed across the entrance to the church, the foyer inside is empty and the place looks abandoned.

A private security guard lets me in through a small entrance at the back of the building. Despite the deadline to vacate the area by December 31, there are about 100 people still living in the church, down from 468 on Christmas Eve. No longer spread over the building’s five floors, residents are now consolidated on the mezzanine and in the basement.

The office where Verryn was based for 18 years has been handed over to Ncombo, a tall, distinguished-looking middle-aged minister who was born in Soweto and grew up in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. He has worked as a Methodist minister in Piet Retief and Benoni. Ncombo was based at Central Methodist for nine months in 2000, so he is no stranger to his new station.

As I sit in the empty waiting room, I notice a large broom leaning against the door frame. Ncombo comes out of his office to shake my hand. Wearing dark blue jeans and a grey, long-sleeved shirt with a white minister’s collar, Ncombo asks for five minutes to take care of something and then goes jogging down the passage. I think he’s going to need that energy, as well as the broom, for his new job.

One of Ncombo’s priorities will be to begin the effort to renovate the building. In addition to repairing collapsed ceilings, broken windows and shattered tiles, he plans to redo the electric wiring and the plumbing. The state of the building was a point of conflict between the congregation and Verryn for many years. Ncombo says the church will begin a campaign called Save the Sanctuary. The word ‘sanctuary’ means “place of refuge”, but it is also the name of the main room of worship in the church – the sanctuary. The new campaign will focus on the desire to save the building and highlight its role as a place of worship.

The pews, the pulpit and the stained glass windows in Central Methodist’s sanctuary have seen a great deal of history. Reverend Peter Storey stood up against the apartheid security police who threatened the sanctuary in the 1980s. Reverend Mvume Dandala tried his best to bring peace to the hostels in the midst of the violence of South Africa’s transition in the 1990s. Verryn first opened the doors of the church to provide accommodation in 2001. The numbers grew steadily to more than 300 in 2006 and peaked at more than 3?000 in 2008.

When Ncombo gets to his office, one of the first things he mentions is his concern about the recent outbreak of violence in Soweto.

“The Pakistani and Somali shopkeepers have their own networks. But if the violence spreads to affect Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, they might come here looking for shelter.”

Ncombo has made it clear that Central Methodist has closed the refugee ministry. He has met the remaining residents in the building on several occasions.

Most recently, the residents submitted a memo entitled Why We are Still Here. The one-page list explains that most of the remaining residents don’t have the money to pay rent and some of them are elderly and disabled and cannot relocate easily.

Verryn proposed that people move to a church community centre in Soweto, but the memo expresses concern about “threats from the Soweto community that there is going to be bloodshed”.

Some residents are requesting help to relocate to old age homes, to other home-based care facilities or to another shelter. It seems Ncombo is not going to pursue legal evictions, but will rather work with the remaining residents. He’s looking for help with this.

“I’ve told government if they haven’t been able to help in the past, they must try to help now.”

Hopefully, Ncombo will have more luck with organising support. In the past, governmental engagement with the crisis at Central Methodist has not gone well. As a result of the violence and the failed elections in Zimbabwe in 2008, as well as the xenophobic violence in South Africa, the number of people housed at Central Methodist skyrocketed.

In January 2009, Verryn asked the City of Joburg to provide a building to house the several thousand people who were sleeping in and around the church. Initially, the city approved a plan to renovate the Moth building on Loveday Street to accommodate 750 residents. The UN High Commission for Refugees and the department of home affairs helped to screen residents who were eligible for relocation. Unfortunately, Gauteng reneged on an agreement to help fund the management of the building. The plan was not implemented and no one from Central Methodist moved.

Also in early 2009, the church’s neighbour – Pitje Chambers, a law firm – took up a legal case against the city and the church. It applied for a court order compelling the city to remove the thousands of migrants from the church because their presence had become a health hazard. The case was eventually withdrawn, but tensions continued to rise.

Property owners along the Small Street Mall and judges at the South Gauteng High Court next door were also incensed by the mess on their doorstep. In July 2009, the Joburg metro police arrested more than 350 people who were sleeping outside the church for “loitering”.

Over the past five years, the number of people staying at the church subsided, but remained at about 800. Many in the congregation and across levels of government have not been supportive of Verryn’s open-door policy. One official once asked: “How do you strike a balance between a humanitarian crisis and the needs of business?”

In the end, it was church finances that broke the camel’s back. By July 2014, Central Methodist had built up a municipal debt of more than R3.2?million. This led to the practical financial decision to close the refugee ministry.

In the days before my meeting with Ncombo, the front pages were shouting about the violence in Soweto targeting foreign shop owners. It is poignant that Central Methodist is closing its refugee ministry just as there is another flare-up of anger and looting against foreign nationals, echoing the violence of May 2008.

Verryn used to say: “Central Methodist is seen as a place to house foreign nationals, but it’s not. It’s a confrontation to society around those in poverty, many of whom happen to be foreign nationals.”

Central Methodist wasn’t perfect, but it provided hope to people in need in an unequal society.

Every Friday night at 7pm there was a refugee meeting, where residents came together to discuss issues at the church. People would report on different activities – adult education, the crèche in the basement, the Albert Street School, computer training, sewing, book club, soccer and karate. Other organisations would offer healthcare, trauma counselling and support services.

The church wasn’t only about providing accommodation, it also encouraged people to become independent. There are a growing number of buildings in the city without electricity and water that have been taken over by rogue landlords and inhabited by those in dire need of shelter. The numbers of people turning to these buildings will increase.

Central Methodist was never able on its own to deal with the challenges of migrant accommodation, homelessness, or inner-city housing. There has always been a need for other institutions to address these issues as well. Like it or not, however, Central Methodist brought attention, good and bad, to the realities that South Africans face in our society and in our city – poverty, migration, xenophobia, policing, inner-city housing and shelter.

The church also made visible the crisis in Zimbabwe over this past decade. And it highlighted the tough reality that the inner city is filled with people who live in shocking conditions, that Johannesburg is a city with a very real gap between rich and poor.

For 14 years, with all its many flaws, Central Methodist never turned anyone away. The church may have closed its doors to the homeless, but people in need will not disappear. The flow of foreign nationals and South Africans from across the country into Johannesburg – and the resulting resentment and xenophobia – is not over.

The question is, will we rise to the occasion and find new ways to address these problems and meet these needs?

Kuljian is the author of Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk (Jacana 2013). She is a Writing Fellow based at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). Next Saturday at 11am, Kuljian will lead a discussion at David Krut bookstore at Maboneng about Sanctuary and recent events at Central Methodist.