Sanctuary – How an inner-city church spilled onto a sidewalk

24th April 2013

Bishop Paul Verryn knew he had a problem when xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa in May 2008 and the threat of it spreading to Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg became very real.  Already there were over a thousand migrants living in the church, most of them having fled across the Zimbabwe border in search of a life beyond poverty and political oppression. Every square inch was occupied – at night men, women and children squeezed into makeshift sleeping places, on and beneath pews in the sanctuary and the chapel, and on every step of the staircases, on landings and in hallways.  On the sidewalk outside the building, hundreds more lay head to toe under threadbare blankets.

Verryn’s open door policy of hospitality had plenty of critics, both from within and outside the Church, but now his neighbours had also had enough and were ready to take action, even drastic action.  At the same time the City of Johannesburg and Gauteng Province were trying to find a solution to this growing social problem, but they seemed to be pulling in different directions and unable to find resolution.  The situation was quickly reaching crisis point.  How had it come to this and when did it all start?

The answers date back to the history of the church’s stance against apartheid, its outreach programmes that go even further back, and its overriding mission to serve a changing city with love and compassion.  Sanctuary tells the story of how this inner-city church and its controversial Bishop came to offer refuge to people who had nowhere else to turn. Woven into the main narrative are the author’s first-hand accounts of the extraordinary stories of some of the individuals who found shelter there over the years. Sanctuary is a powerful testament to the indomitable strength and often simple courage of the human spirit.

Sanctuary was written by freelance writer Christa Kuljian
Published by Jacana