Methodists pull plug on Joburg church slum

2014-12-28 10:02
Zimbabwean refugees are seen at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. (Werner Beukes, Sapa)

Zimbabwean refugees are seen at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. (Werner Beukes, Sapa)

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Johannesburg - Bishop Paul Verryn will give his last Sunday church service at the infamous Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg after the church’s leadership ordered that the building be vacated after people living there ran up a R2m electricity bill.

According to the Sunday Times, the church, which has housed over 30 000 people over the past six years will on Wednesday lock out the remaining 500 refugees living there.

Numbers swelled in 2008 during the height of the xenophobic attacks after Verryn, the church’s superintendent, gave refuge to thousands of Zimbabweans at the time.

Nowadays, however, the building is reportedly a slum. The newspaper reports that on entering there is a pungent mixture of smells, including urine, dagga and filth, while people sleep on stairways, in corridors and anywhere they can find a space. In addition the lifts don’t work, there are no fire extinguishers and anything made of copper or steel has been vandalised.

From next year, Verryn will lead the Jabavu circuit in Soweto while Rev Ndumiso Ngcobo will take over in Johannesburg.

Continuous tensions

The church and Verryn have in the past been a bone of contention for the Gauteng government and the Methodist Church of SA. In 2010 Verryn, was suspended on charges of transgressing the laws and discipline of the church, and the constitution of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

At this time, the Central Methodist Church had opened its doors to thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants and had been at the centre of controversy involving the situation of women and children at the church in central Johannesburg.

His suspension was however lifted soon after.

There had, however, been previous reports of tensions between Verryn and the Methodist Church of SA.

In 2009 Verryn launched a court application to have a curator appointed for children staying at the church.

The application followed ongoing wrangles between the church and the Gauteng government, which accused Verryn of refusing to co-operate with social workers who had wanted to move the Zimbabwean children to proper homes and shelters.

Subsequently, a children's rights lawyer was appointed by the South Gauteng High Court earlier this month to act as the legal guardian to 56 unaccompanied Zimbabwean minors.

According to media reports at the time, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa said Verryn allegedly acted unilaterally in launching the application.

Curator compiling report

The church said it only allowed the presiding bishop or the church's general secretary to bring an application before a court.

"Mr Bishop Paul Verryn has acted unilaterally and without the support of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa," the church's head Ivan Abrahams said at the time.

The curator, Ann Skelton, from the Centre for Child Law, is expected to compile a report on recommendations regarding steps to be taken in the best interests of the children by 8 February.

In October 2009, the Gauteng legislature's health and social development portfolio committee called for the closure of the church, calling it a time bomb.

Following a visit to the church, chairperson Molebatsi Bopape said at the time: "Children are being exposed to abuse, babies are sleeping on the floor... the place is so filthy that we couldn't even breathe."

In December, the government said it was considering taking court action to remove children from the church.

'Government the villain'

At the time, Legal Resource Centre attorney Jason Brickhill said the application for curatorship took place in the context of government's statements of its intention to move the children to places of safety.

"Bishop Verryn believes that it is essential that someone sufficiently experienced and independent be formally and legally empowered to protect the best interests of the children, to represent their best interests in negotiations with government and investigate the best options available."

He said Verryn believed he was unable to "adequately safeguard the best interest of the children at the church or if and when they are relocated".

But the SA Council of Churches said at the time the primary villain in the refugee saga was not Verryn, but the government.

"These people moved into [the church] because it responded to a humanitarian crisis, to which few other people, including the local, provincial and national government, responded."

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  religion
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