The past couple of weeks have seen an alarming upsurge in xenophobic violence against foreigners in various parts of South Africa, with even the Central Methodist Church being targeted this past weekend as a result of that church providing sanctuary to some 1 000 (mainly Zimbabwean) refugees.
Apart from the physical trauma that such violence has caused, there is also a potential humanitarian crisis in that members of the affected communities are flocking to police stations and other places of safety in order to escape possible further attack.
This morining our Circuit Superintendent received a call from Bishop Paul Verryn, who expressed concern that there are rumours of possible attacks on schools in the Jeppe / Malvern area, where many foreigners live and whose children attend school there, and he felt that a strong clergy presence would assist in keeping potentially hot tempers calmed.
As it turned out, all was quiet at the schools. Not so at the Jeppe police station, where about 1 400 people are currently seeking refuge. Our brief: To go and distribute as much bread and soup as we possibly could, since most of those sheltered at the police station had nothing to eat.
When I left home this afternoon, my mother pleaded with me to put on one of my newly-acquired clerical shirts and collar, so that I could be clearly identified as clergy. However, since I only appear before the final screening committee at Synod this coming weekend, and having not yet been formally recognised as a probationer minister, I had to make do with ordinary clothing. Needless to say, I stuck VERY closely to anyone wearing a collar, so that there would be no doubt as to the purpose of my presence at the police station.
Things got a bit hectic at first as we tried to set up serving stations. At one point one of the ministers and I thought we were going to be crushed as the crowd surged forward, trying to grab some bread. The minister jumped onto the table and started yelling at those crushing in, while I had to stiff-arm one or two people attempting to snatch whole loaves of bread from our arms. Thankfully, and with the assistance of a burly police captain, we managed to move our serving points to the bottom of a flight of stairs where access could be better controlled, and somehow we all got the people lined up in orderly queues.
There were about eight of us in total distributing bread, and I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that we have no concept of what it's really like to be hungry as we witnessed the desperation on the faces of the people we were feeding.
Of course, in a situation like that, one can always expect some opportunists, and there were a few trying to pull a fast one by jumping the queues, joining the queues more than once, and so on. However, what distressed me was that despite our efforts to feed the women and children first (thereby making sure that at least they could all be fed, since we were initially instructed to cater for about 700 people), the men just pushed forward - almost like the law of the jungle, where the strong survive and the weak get left behind.
We unfortunately had to take the soup back with us, sonce the group that had promised to bring containers did not arrive. One or two of the ministers were dispatched to purchased polystyrene cups this afternoon, so that we can serve the soup when we return tomorrow.
The strange thing for me was that despite going into what was potentially an extremely volatile situation, I felt no sensation of fear. Some would call this foolhardy. I'd like to think that it was the assurance of God's arms of protection wrapped around us throughout the time we were there.
It was then that I realised that we tend to over-complicate this whole ministry "thing". Jesus said, "If you love Me, feed My sheep". As our country goes through this time of turmoil, with tempers running high and the politicians doing the usual blame thing or putting their heads in the sands, I pray that we don't lose sight of what our Lord expects us to do in this situation.
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