A life committed to speaking truth to power…

Date: January 31, 2010
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Gender Links would like to state its unconditional support to Bishop Paul Verryn, in light of the recent disciplinary proceedings instituted against him by the Methodist Church.

Bishop Verryn has remained a committed human rights campaigner along his career. He fought against apartheid and – reading well the sings of the times – he has continued challenging the powers at be in the new democratic dispensation. His latest ‘sin’ is to have responded in a humane and effective way to the plight of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing into Johannesburg, mostly from neighbouring Zimbabwe. It is rather ironic that only towards the end of 2009 some local authorities showed interest and concern for the well being of the migrants residing at the Central Methodist Church. They were allegedly shocked at the living conditions and health hazards of the building, and accused Bishop Verryn of covering criminal activities. Where were those officials when reports of thousand of migrants fleeing into South Africa emerged many years ago? Have these officials shown the same interest and concern for migrants surviving in other parts of the country, or for the millions of destitute South Africans living in downtown Johannesburg or in townships, for that matter? It is unfortunate that the hierarchy of the Methodist Church has not been able to appreciate the work of the Bishop and has fallen for the stories fabricated to damage his reputation. Many South Africans citizens and the government have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of fellow Africans, or have responded with xenophobic attacks. Bishop Verryn is the conscience of a nation in denial of a humanitarian crisis at its doorstep. He responded in the only way a committed religious person or human rights activist should respond…not with words but with action.

The Central Methodist Church is not a beautiful, comfortable place to stay, but it has become a home away from home for thousand of destitute migrants – many of them women and children – who have not received support whatsoever from the government or international agencies who are legally and ethically obliged to assist them. Serena Thomas, an intern from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation – a sister NGO who has been doing work at the Central Methodist Church – could not describe better what the place is all about:
“Exiting our taxi in front of the Central Methodist Church, I felt like I was back in a transitory space, like a Cameroonian bus station. A group of men lined the wall, teasing each other and several kids played a game that looked like tag, running around their mothers who were selling pap and meat. As we walked through the rooms, the group members declared, “this is my corner, this is my daughter, this is my mattress, this is my television, this is my oil for frying though”.

An elderly woman with charcoal hair, slept in the middle of the room, her knees slightly curled up to her chest. People here sleep anywhere, everywhere. Six women were frying dough in pots of boiling oil and behind them musty luggage, an overflowing bags filled with oranges, tomatoes, loaves of bread and leafy greens lay in a huge pile, almost touched the ceiling. Every inch of space was filled.
Opening a set of double wooden doors, we arrived at the weekly refugee meeting, the room was filled. Presenters wore their best, creased dress, pants, ties, stilettos and skirts. A sense of pride and meaning seemed to fill the room, a chance to regain lost selves.
Several hours later I left with a sense of awe and hope. This visit forced me to rethink how I look at those who suffer. If we are not careful, we jump in, assuming we know, debilitating and victimising powerful, capable people. We cannot assume we know. We can never assume we know.
This is not the first time I have seen people make home in the rubble of nothingness and every time I am deeply humbled. One group member had told us ‘if life throws lemons at you, make lemonade’.

Speaking truth to power has being punished since times immemorial. What is puzzling in this case is that Bishop Verryn is being punished for caring for human beings in disgrace, and giving them a chance to regain lost selves.

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