The Suspension of Bishop Paul Verryn & the Zimbabwean Refugees: Problems with being a Prophet?

image Last month Bishop Paul Verryn was suspended from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Bishop Verryn was a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner and has in recent years become well-known for opening the doors of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg to Zimbabwean refugees.

About 2,000 displaced Zimbabweans sleep in the church every night. Everyone seems to agree that this stretches the capacities of the church and its resources to a breaking point. South African authorities have claimed that the church has become a health and sanitation hazard, and there are rumours that some children have been sexually abused in the church.

The Methodist Church gives as the official reason for Verryn’s suspension:

He has been charged with transgressing the Laws and Discipline (L&D) of the Church – essentially the constitution of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

The church’s specific gripe with Verryn seems to be that ‘Verryn applied to the high court last year in a bid to get a curator appointed for unaccompanied minors living at the church.’

Verryn acted without the permission of the Methodist Church in doing this.

From afar, this seems like a trifling technicality – just another example of out-of-touch church authorities interfering with someone who is ‘being Jesus’ to the poor. But when the surface of the controversy is scratched, other issues emerge. The Mail & Guardian reports that,

Last October, the Gauteng legislature’s health and social development portfolio committee called for the closure of the church.

Following a visit to the building, 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."

The controversy has also stirred up rumours that Verryn himself has been involved with abuse, although this remains unproven.

Further, there does not seem to be any other place for the refugees to go and many refuse to leave the church, where they have received shelter and skills training.

The Mail and Guardian also quotes Jonathan Whittall of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), who ‘said he believes the attack on Verryn and the church is another form of intimidation of the Zimbabwean refugee population.’

“Government is not responding to the needs of Zimbabweans seeking ­refuge in South Africa … and the [Central Methodist Mission] church is a very visible place where those failures are being exposed.”

People outside of southern Africa – especially football fans – should be bothered by this because there are accusations that the authorities are trying to ‘hide’ the poor and the refugees from visitors coming to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

The churches in South Africa have had a history of not only speaking with a ‘prophetic’ voice about injustice, but of trying to do something about it.

Verryn’s suspension highlights some of the difficulties and complexities of that calling, and raises questions not just for Christians in South Africa but further afield.

  • How do the churches – whether it’s in South Africa or on this island – treat the immigrants and refugees who arrive on their doorsteps?
  • How can the churches not only contribute to meeting the immediate needs of immigrants and refugees, but also influence government policy in a direction that is more just? (In this, churches on this island don’t have to take the same sort of risks that Verryn seems to have had to take with his own denomination and the governmental authorities.)
  • What should Christians do when their resources have reached the absolute limit and yet desperate need remains?

The Verryn case remains unresolved, but it calls all Christians to reflect on the cost, controversy and complexity of a prophetic faith.

(Photo, Verryn blessing Zimbabwean refugees in the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg. Photo sourced from the Central Methodists Church and Bishop Paul Verryn Facebook fan page.)

6 thoughts on “The Suspension of Bishop Paul Verryn & the Zimbabwean Refugees: Problems with being a Prophet?”

  1. I work in the mainstream UK media and visited the church late last year to interview some of the refugees living there. I was given a tour of the building and had the opportunity to speak to a number of people.
    I was extremely moved by what I saw and heard. These are people doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances. The sleeping quarters for children are segregated for their safety, there is a crèche which is decorated and equipped with toys, and when I visited the building was clean. Furthermore a school has been set up by refugee teachers from Zimbabwe to provide a proper education for the young people. These are all services that have been arranged by the residents themselves because the South African government has not provided provisions.
    Many of those staying at the church are well educated and were forced to leave Zimbabwe because of their political objections to the disastrous and brutal Mugabe regime. Such as the teenage boy I spoke to who was forced to leave his mother and siblings behind after his father, who was a manger in a mining company, was murdered for supporting the opposition party. After he was killed his 15 year old son was threatened with violence if he didn’t attend pro- Mugabe meetings. Forced to flee for his life, he now lives at the Church and attends the refugee school.
    These people have nowhere else to go. Are the powers that be in the Methodist Church seriously suggesting that it is better to suspend the Bishop and turf these people out onto the street where they will be even more at risk? As if they haven’t been through enough already, they need to be supported not attacked.

  2. this is very sad indeed.

    but the Bishop will be blessed by our God. and the struggle continues for all of us Zimbabweans. we soldier on. The end is near enough now. We shall get there by the grace of God

  3. As a Zimbabwean-South African (grew up in Zim, now live in SA) I am painfully aware of the needs of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. Bishop Verryn is one of the few church leaders who is truly doing something to address this crisis, though, of course, not without sometimes making mistakes in the process.

    Last year I helped to organize a conference (the Amahoro Gathering) where we invited Paul to speak (his talk is available here:

    His most profound insight was that when the church opens its doors – as it should – then ‘the world’ comes in, with everything that entails. He described a murder that happened in the church building, and his concerns about unaccompanied minors who arrived at the church (as a result a school was started). There are bad things happening at Central Methodist, yes, but the mission of the church is not to protect itself from the ‘sin’ in the world.

    Although I do not know all the details of the MCSA’s case against Paul, I do believe that part of the reason that he is being disciplined is that he has allowed choas to enter and disturb the order of the church.

  4. We see it from a spiritual perspective. We thank the Bishop for the noble cause of his Mission. By so doing he was persuading the world to think about the troubled. We, the people of Zimbabwe are ever much grateful to these few who come on with however little to help the who ever few of the suffering.

    Our Zimbabwean suffering is not by design. We feel strongly that as honest citizens we have done everything in our power to right a wrong. But we are robbed and we are suppressed and so the will of us the people is severely suppressed. The world watches, sees and they notice. We however dont seem to get enough effective help as much as we would require as an innocent defenseless citizens of a troubled nation.

    We have now come to a stage where we feel that not always right things can bring a right. And every human being has a capacity to err and the same must be shown discipline.

    Whatever the wrong the Bishop committed we are more than grateful that he was right in his ‘wrong’ doing. So may the God of all bless him and we know the truth and rigt will prevail over lies and wrong. God Bless you Bishop!

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