It is well known that for quite some time there have been a number of Zimbabwean refugees who have been granted shelter in the church. Let me state at this point that I'm not interested in any so-called "official" definition of refugees. Opponents to the influx of Zimbabweans like to argue that they are not "true" refugees as they are not fleeing war in their country. I would challenge those detractors to try and eke out any sort of existence in a country where there are shortages of every kind of commodity (including food), unemployment is over 80%, and the inflation figure has so many zeros on it that it is no longer published.
Bishop Paul Verryn is to be commended for his bravery in throwing open the doors of Central Methodist to people who have nothing but the clothes on their back, and have come to South Africa in the hope of being able to make some sort of living to be able to support those back home.
The crazy thing is that the xenophobia on the part of many South Africans, coupled with an inability on the part of the South African Government to address this issue with any degree of competence or humaneness, is inadvertently depriving South Africa of some of the skills that the country desperately needs, which many of the folks staying at Central have.
I was involved for a short period in assessing skills, mainly in accounting and finance, and was astounded at the number of people there who are in possession of degrees - some even with Honours. The skills assessment entailed preparing submissions to the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) for South African recognition of these qualifications, followed by an application to Home Affairs for work permits based on a quota list of skills required.
Bishop Verryn, writing on the Central Methodist Mission website Ray of Hope, outlines the ministry to refugees thus:
There is abundant precedent in the history of two millennia of the Christian Church's existence of the Church being used as a shelter for the destitute and vulnerable in society. For instance, during the second world war, about 450 000 people stayed for a night or five years at Central Hall in downtown London. Throughout Africa the Church has stood as a symbol of hope to those devastated by war, disease, poverty and any number of natural disasters. Ultimately the Church expresses a preferential option for the poor and marginalized of society.
For the past twenty years, Central Methodist Mission has quite specifically been engaged in a ministry to the homeless on the streets. This ministry has included a feeding scheme, primary health attention, a support group, counseling, advocacy and searching for appropriate job opportunities. The prevailing value is that we show compassion, but do not create dependency; we engage the fundamental humanity in all people and refuse to stigmatise people because they are poor. These are not heroic principles, they are fundamental to an understanding of our faith. In fact, it would be ludicrous to imagine that you call yourself Christian and sustain an immovable prejudice against another human being for whatever reason, whether it be that they come from another country or are of a different age or gender. This was the foundation of the Church's critique of apartheid. This does not mean that as Christians we have succeeded in winning the struggle against these evils. They can domicile themselves subtly in all of us.
When the tragedy of displacement for people from all Africa became more evident in South Africa it was a natural and obvious imperative for the members of Central Methodist Mission to engage the challenge as part of its ongoing ministry to the inner city. To say 'no' to those asking for shelter when there is no alternative available would be to deny our reason for being. It would present a Christian community with a contradiction which would belie the essence of the gospel. This does not mean that all who call themselves members of Central Methodist Mission applaud the approach and enjoy the “invasion” of their posh church premises. Despite the fact that they may never have lifted a finger to dust a pew, their unhappiness has been vitriolic and intolerant.
A recent anonymous letter to our Presiding Bishop captures well the fact that xenophobia and racism belong to the same stable.
The letter was a shameful exposure of violence, prejudice and deceit and all in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ. Let us not pretend that some of the instruments for massacre and unrelenting hatred are not evident in our rainbow South Africa .
What should the Christian response be to the marginalized?
I would be the first to recognize that the building is overcrowded. I am also concerned about the cleanliness and hygiene of the building. I am deeply worried about whether a building that was never designed for this present condition will survive. Health, nutrition, warmth and safety are constantly on the agenda of committees that have been meeting every week to ten days. The murder that took place earlier [last] year has deeply traumatized us all. We have always tried to ensure careful conflict resolution strategies, insisting that to talk will lead to better resolution of differences. Every person that stays in the building is registered on a database which captures next of kin, educational qualifications and skills. Each person is told the following is not permitted in the building:
- No drinking of alcohol
- No smoking of anything
- No fighting
- No stealing
- No illegitimate sex ( married persons are accommodated in a separate area).
All persons staying in the building, are required to keep the place clean and worship every day.
If a resident chooses not to observe these valued principles they are evicted. These rules have emerged from our experience of what creates problems in community. In some respects they are not unlike the commandments. We have more than 25 people who constantly monitor the sustaining of these disciplines. They themselves are subject to the rules even though they may not always succeed in keeping them. Furthermore, it would be an absurdity to imagine there is no conflict. It would be even more bizarre to think that more than 500 people can co-exist without stealing taking place. But considering the strain of the circumstances the results are remarkable.
Not to put too finer a point on the fact, it is important to note that as soon as one crosses the threshold of a church, nationality ceases to matter. Any reader of the New Testament will quickly discover that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free. Therefore, what politically is called an asylum seeker, in the church is a member of the family. We are reminded that the first refugees in Central were in fact South Africans. They may not be running from an exploitative dictator, but they are refugees from poverty and hopelessness in the country of their birth.
Is there a building out there?
This is a unique moment in the Church's history in the inner city, this is a unique moment for South Africa in its relation to its mother, Africa. We cannot underestimate the honour of needing to care for those seeking refuge at our hands. Amongst the people that we host are school principals and teachers, accountants, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, financiers, people with careers in marketing, journalists, politicians, people from the medical professions to name a few. This is a chance for us to provide hope for families who have been completely dispossessed in their homelands. If recent figures released are accurate then one in four of the Zimbabwean population is now in South Africa and the impact of our caring responsibly could produce no less than a small miracle for our context. It is not a matter of skilled labour stealing the jobs of South Africans. It is an opportunity for South Africans to be skilled by people who have an experience of building a nation free of colonialism and oppression. In fact, the skills that have been driven into this country miraculously match exactly what is needed in our present economy.
Some of the most amazing giftedness has emerged in the building. We have a ballroom and Latin American dancing class. We have supported a group of journalists in establishing a website and office in Braamfontein. We have a fly fishing project in the building. We would like to establish a firm of accountants; sewing and cooking projects are underway and several of the group are engaged in a farming project near Randfontein for the District Women's Manyano Organisation. We have established a registered clinic in the building and hope to launch a computer ABET centre.
Many dreams are in the pipeline. Obviously the intention is for individuals to gain independence and economic sustainability as soon as possible so that measurable contributions can be realized in an inner city that is exploding with potential and vitality.
Although people who enter our building think that they are simply seeking a shelter or needing a blanket or wanting a plate of food or requesting start up finance, in fact they are engaged in a profound confrontation of the status quo which says that the poor are irrelevant and the dispossessed have nothing of value to offer. In fact the Mission stands in sharp contrast to capitalist mindset and seeks to overthrow a precarious economic paradigm.
Ultimately a nation can be judged on what realistic hope it offers to its poorest people. How can we be more effective? What is the Christian response to the marginalized? Is there a building out there? How can we be more effective?
And all the while President Thabo Mbeki is adamant that "quiet diplomacy" will ultimately sort out the Zimbabwean crisis. Try telling that to one of the destitute people who was arrested last night, wrenched from the only shelter and kindness they have known since arriving in South Africa, and sent back to a country where there is no immediate hope of living any sort of decent existence.
But enough ranting and raving. What can we as the Church do?
- We can start off with fervent prayer. Bishop Verryn and his staff need all the prayer support they can get right now.
- Secondly, we need to lift our backsides off our cozy, well-padded pews and look at ways in which the wider church can be of assistance. This is not merely a Central Methodist Mission issue. This is an issue that affects the whole Church. We need to find out what Central's most pressing needs, are, and have a look at where we can assist in tangible ways. Food, clothing, skills development, financial assistance with utility bills, sponsors for applications to bodies such as SAQA and Home affairs - the list is probably longer, but this would be a good place to start. Central Methodist can be contacted directly via e-mail at email@example.com.
- Thirdly, we need to mobilise the Church in protest against Government's shameful handling of this whole issue - not only last night's arrests, but also the way in which bureacracy and red tape at Home Affairs prevents the timeous processing of applications, the ongoing harrasment by police even of those whose paperwork is in order, and the generally shameful way in which people are simply tossed out of the country like unwanted garbage. I'm not sure at this stage how we channel this as I am still in "soapbox mode", but our leaders within the Church need to start engaging with its structures to establish how best this can be done. Perhaps some letters channeled via Circuit Quarterly Meetings or individual Societies to the Presiding Bishop's office may be a good starting point?
The one thing that we CANNOT do - is "nothing".