Dion's random ramblings

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Central Methodist Mission, Bishop Paul Verryn and compassion

For some years I have been connected with the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg. I first spent time there in 1992 when I was doing a pre-pastoral course in Soweto (with Paul Verryn) and we went into the city for a number of days to work with people who were living on the streets.

At that stage the Central Methodist Mission was a grand old Church building - imposing and impressive! A friend of mine, Derek Wilson, was Ordained in that Church, and it also happens to be the location of most of my early education in Biblical Greek! Paul was my Greek tutor and I spent many, many hours between the masses of people who would come to Paul's office. Declensions, parsing and people... Those are my memories of my first year of Greek!

Paul is a close friend and I declare that not as a bias, but as truth. I have benefited from his counsel and care on numerous occasions. I have always been impressed by his courage and commitment to the poor. I don't know of any other person, even the "great names", in our nation who has sacrificed as much for the sake of caring for those to whom no-one goes.

As Paul began to take in the refugees at Central mission we often met in the building (at that stage I was the Dean of the Methodist Seminary and some of our students had placements there, but Paul was also the chairperson of the Theological Education working group, so we met there once a month or so). I watched the numbers growing each time we entered the building.

Even then I could see that this was not an ideal location to house desperate people, but what was he to do!? The South African government, in an attempt to keep Mr Mugabe happy, would not acknowledge that Zimbabwe was in crisis! Back in 2006 I heard that there were over 2 million refugees from Zimbabwe in South Africa, yet because of our nation's "quiet diplomacy" with Zimbabwe less than
58 had refugee status! No, that's not a typographical error, LESS 58 persons out of 2 million. (If anyone reading the blog can confirm these numbers or help me with a reference I would be grateful).

And so, the Church did what all good Churches should do - they opened their doors to the destitute. We often hear Churches quoting the words of Jesus in Luke 4, saying that they will bring "Good news to the poor"... very few do it! I can tell you the truth, good news to a poor person is NOT a sermon! It is shelter, and food, and medical care, and hope for life! This is the WAY of Jesus...

On the day when the refugees were arrested at Central Methodist Mission our campus stopped, we held a special service that morning and our students went to the Church in solidarity with those who had been arrested. You can listen to a reflection that I did with one of our students at the time, Paul Oosthuizen, here:


A few months later I was approached by the SABC to participate in a television documentary on Paul's life. I was pleased to do so. I am not naive to the fact that he has flaws, like all of us do, but I am as certain now, as I was then, that his intentions are just, in fact he is orientated towards the kind
of Justice that is a characteristic of a true follower of Christ!

As I read the Noseweek article "Abuse or Mercy? Two sides of the horrificrefugee crisis dispute at Jozi's Central Methodist Church"; this morning I wept.

I couldn't control the tears. I wept for Paul - it is clear that he, and his Church, are doing their best with very little support from the local government. They are overwhelmed with suffering! What are they to do? I also wept for the 3500 people who have to live in the conditions described in the article - their desperation must be extreme for them to be willing to put up with the conditions that they face in that shelter.

The conclusion of the article reads:

It is all too easy to accuse Verryn, or make out that the church is somehow at fault - as many are wont to do. But while fingers are being pointed, no one has come up with alternative places of shelter - or stepped in to help alleviate the situation. Verryn appears to be doing the best he can, rarely leaving the church before 3am as he staves off a tsunami of challenges, as he attempts the impossible - to bring order to violence and chaos. Meanwhile the authorities, both government and the City of Johannesburg, are failing their mandate to protect our own children - never mind resolve the desperate plight of those forced to flee to what they imagined was a better life, only to find themselves fighting for their lives and dignity in South Africa's own 'war of the streets'. (Noseweek, October 2009, p.21).

So, tomorrow as I take up my weekly fast (Isa 58:6-9), I shall do so with the Pastor and the residents of Central Methodist Church in mind. I am encouraged by Paul, he exemplifies the injunction of the Prophet Micah "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8)

Please can I invite you to pray and fast with me? There must be a solution to this nightmare!


  • It was one of the most joyful experiences to see Conference giving Paul a standing ovation, and to hear that he'd been given an honorary doctorate. As well-meaning these acts of recognition, they simply don't make a dent in the challenges at CMM. I too join you in remembering all, both Paul, the leadership of CMM and those who experience CMM as home.

    By Blogger Wessel Bentley, at 10:53 AM  

  • Thank you for this writing about Paul and what he stands for and the plight of the people and his service to humanity. I am busy with a sermon/writing called "The Uncomfortable Truth" based on God's Word in Mat 25:31-46. I will incorporate some of your writing in it.

    By Blogger Herman Groenewald, at 12:09 PM  

  • as one of the refugees that are staying with him i need to take this opportunity to thank him
    for taking care of us

    By Blogger zimbabwe refugee project, at 6:08 PM  

  • A standing ovation, yet now a suspension!

    I hope his fellow Methodists are continuing to support him!

    By Blogger Steve Hayes, at 9:59 PM  

  • Dear Steve,

    Thank you for your comment! Indeed, I share your concern and will do my best to encourage support for Paul.

    You can find a more recent post on this matter here.

    God bless,


    By Blogger digitaldion (Dion Forster), at 3:25 PM  

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