Review of Sanctuary in Methodist Recorder

This book review of Sanctuary – How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk is written by Brian J Brown (published in the Methodist Recorder – Friday, October 18, 2013).

THE TRUE MEANING OF MISSION 

There are those who create the need for sanctuary and those who offer it. Southern Africa in the first decade of this century was not short of the former. Robert Mugabe declared war on his people; South Africa’s President Mbeki tip-toed around, allowing the “Great Liberator” to act with impunity; and as thousands fled south, Mbeki declined to establish refugee facilities, promising that “foreign guests would be integrated into our communities”.

Unfortunately he didn’t tell the locals and many experiencing unemployment engaged in murderous xenophobic attacks on the refugees. Amid all this, word got round that Central Methodist Mission (CMM) in Johannesburg offered sanctuary. Paul Verryn, the minister at CMM, would interview virtually every one of the estimated 30,000 who experienced hospitality.

In Sanctuary – How an inner-city church spilled onto a sidewalk Christa Kuljian has no personal agenda, offering neither a hagiography of Verryn nor an unblemished tribute to the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Verryn might feel bruised by her suggestion of poor delegation and timekeeping, a shortness of temper and stubbornness bordering on arrogance. If these be warts, a colleague tellingly declares, “We quietly admire him – we only wish we had the guts to do what he does.”

Explains

One of Verryn’s sermons explains much: Jesus didn’t have stuff, he was a social misfit and he died a criminal, falsely charged. He was ever probing as to what it was that gave Jesus distinctive access to the poor. His marriage to the Church meant being ever-accessible. Those waiting outside his vestry could still anticipate a listening ear at 3 am.

Kuljian introduces us to the activities required in caring for 3,000 residents at a time. Médécins Sans Frontieres ran a clinic for refugees and appointed counsellors in response to the vulnerability of the 150 unaccompanied minors at CMM. The long established crèche was augmented by the opening of a school in a Methodist building close by.

The many adult education and training programmes were seen as obligatory for residents and packed congregations attended evening prayers (with a weekly healing service).

The Ray of Hope meetings on Fridays gave a platform for residents to engage with one another. Verryn would lament that he spent more time talking about toilets than Jesus! Money was always scarce, yet meagre resources were stretched to provide 460 meals a day for children.

As this inner-city church spilled on to the sidewalk during the xenophobic attacks, CMM was seen by those in adjoining properties as a neighbour from hell. Responses were two-fold. A self-serving politician would arrive in the early hours of the morning, complete with police and media, and spend the rest of the day in studios recounting the stench, health, danger, capacity for crime, and her understanding that “a church is not meant to be inhabited by people”.

The second response was more brutal; a police raid in the early hours and violence as residents were indiscriminately thrown into police vans. After much publicity and few prosecutions, the yet more traumatised refugees returned to their CMM haven. City, provincial and national authorities remained indifferent.

When the streets were “cleared” of the lame and blind in anticipation of the Football World Cup, Verryn set aside the chapel for this community. A fellow minister, looking in on the gathering, exclaimed, “Dear God, you are at work here.”

Remarkable

Sanctuary does more than tell the story of sanctuary. Through the eyes of three remarkable leaders at CMM it evaluates what mission means. Peter Storey was invited to serve Central from 1976. He declared his intention of turning the church around – away from itself to face the city. This would entail integrating the congregation and engaging with the issues of apartheid. It brought its challenges. The time when the entire (white) choir walked out, when Storey went “political”. Or the broadcast service when he saw the studio’s red light go off – apartheid’s apologists had pulled the plug!

Mvume Dandala arrived in 1991, CMM’s first black leader, at the time of political transition. There were 50,000 migrant mine-workers living in male hostels in Johannesburg, supporting either the ANC of Mandela or the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. Dandala became the key player in the Hostel Peace initiative, with meetings based at CMM. He recalls his instructions at the first meeting: “If you fail and we fight, you will die with us.”

Anxious as to how to proceed, he told of the Christian custom of passing the peace. Thirty minutes later, the tears, hugs and laughter suggested a peace process had begun. When Dandala left in 1997, Verryn inherited a church that believed in serving the poor.

Kuljian periodically interrupts the narrative to introduce us to residents of CMM, illuminating cameos that offer insights of pain and hope.

South Africa watchers will wonder if Kuljian deals with the elephant in the room, Verryn’s alleged abuse of children to whom he gave sanctuary in his Soweto manse. Rumours started after a 14-year-old, “Stompie” Seipei, was abducted by the “bodyguards” of Winnie Mandela. The author offers a full analysis. The leader of the “bodyguards” was convicted of Stompie’s murder and Mrs Mandela convicted of kidnapping. Subsequently, verdicts pronounced after investigations by a court, the Church, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completely exonerated Verryn.

Sanctuary restores one’s faith. Not in the hierarchy of the Church, whose action of suspending Verryn from

CMM duties was shameful. The faith-renewing aspect is bound up with the prophetic figures who allowed the Spirit of God to use bricks and mortar to offer sanctuary, justice, compassion and hope in a way that is probably without precedent in the history of Central Missions.

Review by Reverend Brian J Brown, and first published in Methodist Recorder, Friday October 18, 2013.