Review of Sanctuary in Methodist Recorder

This book review of Sanctuary – How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk is written by Brian J Brown (published in the Methodist Recorder – Friday, October 18, 2013).


There are those who create the need for sanctuary and those who offer it. Southern Africa in the first decade of this century was not short of the former. Robert Mugabe declared war on his people; South Africa’s President Mbeki tip-toed around, allowing the “Great Liberator” to act with impunity; and as thousands fled south, Mbeki declined to establish refugee facilities, promising that “foreign guests would be integrated into our communities”.

Unfortunately he didn’t tell the locals and many experiencing unemployment engaged in murderous xenophobic attacks on the refugees. Amid all this, word got round that Central Methodist Mission (CMM) in Johannesburg offered sanctuary. Paul Verryn, the minister at CMM, would interview virtually every one of the estimated 30,000 who experienced hospitality.

In Sanctuary – How an inner-city church spilled onto a sidewalk Christa Kuljian has no personal agenda, offering neither a hagiography of Verryn nor an unblemished tribute to the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Verryn might feel bruised by her suggestion of poor delegation and timekeeping, a shortness of temper and stubbornness bordering on arrogance. If these be warts, a colleague tellingly declares, “We quietly admire him – we only wish we had the guts to do what he does.”


One of Verryn’s sermons explains much: Jesus didn’t have stuff, he was a social misfit and he died a criminal, falsely charged. He was ever probing as to what it was that gave Jesus distinctive access to the poor. His marriage to the Church meant being ever-accessible. Those waiting outside his vestry could still anticipate a listening ear at 3 am.

Kuljian introduces us to the activities required in caring for 3,000 residents at a time. Médécins Sans Frontieres ran a clinic for refugees and appointed counsellors in response to the vulnerability of the 150 unaccompanied minors at CMM. The long established crèche was augmented by the opening of a school in a Methodist building close by.

The many adult education and training programmes were seen as obligatory for residents and packed congregations attended evening prayers (with a weekly healing service).

The Ray of Hope meetings on Fridays gave a platform for residents to engage with one another. Verryn would lament that he spent more time talking about toilets than Jesus! Money was always scarce, yet meagre resources were stretched to provide 460 meals a day for children.

As this inner-city church spilled on to the sidewalk during the xenophobic attacks, CMM was seen by those in adjoining properties as a neighbour from hell. Responses were two-fold. A self-serving politician would arrive in the early hours of the morning, complete with police and media, and spend the rest of the day in studios recounting the stench, health, danger, capacity for crime, and her understanding that “a church is not meant to be inhabited by people”.

The second response was more brutal; a police raid in the early hours and violence as residents were indiscriminately thrown into police vans. After much publicity and few prosecutions, the yet more traumatised refugees returned to their CMM haven. City, provincial and national authorities remained indifferent.

When the streets were “cleared” of the lame and blind in anticipation of the Football World Cup, Verryn set aside the chapel for this community. A fellow minister, looking in on the gathering, exclaimed, “Dear God, you are at work here.”


Sanctuary does more than tell the story of sanctuary. Through the eyes of three remarkable leaders at CMM it evaluates what mission means. Peter Storey was invited to serve Central from 1976. He declared his intention of turning the church around – away from itself to face the city. This would entail integrating the congregation and engaging with the issues of apartheid. It brought its challenges. The time when the entire (white) choir walked out, when Storey went “political”. Or the broadcast service when he saw the studio’s red light go off – apartheid’s apologists had pulled the plug!

Mvume Dandala arrived in 1991, CMM’s first black leader, at the time of political transition. There were 50,000 migrant mine-workers living in male hostels in Johannesburg, supporting either the ANC of Mandela or the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. Dandala became the key player in the Hostel Peace initiative, with meetings based at CMM. He recalls his instructions at the first meeting: “If you fail and we fight, you will die with us.”

Anxious as to how to proceed, he told of the Christian custom of passing the peace. Thirty minutes later, the tears, hugs and laughter suggested a peace process had begun. When Dandala left in 1997, Verryn inherited a church that believed in serving the poor.

Kuljian periodically interrupts the narrative to introduce us to residents of CMM, illuminating cameos that offer insights of pain and hope.

South Africa watchers will wonder if Kuljian deals with the elephant in the room, Verryn’s alleged abuse of children to whom he gave sanctuary in his Soweto manse. Rumours started after a 14-year-old, “Stompie” Seipei, was abducted by the “bodyguards” of Winnie Mandela. The author offers a full analysis. The leader of the “bodyguards” was convicted of Stompie’s murder and Mrs Mandela convicted of kidnapping. Subsequently, verdicts pronounced after investigations by a court, the Church, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completely exonerated Verryn.

Sanctuary restores one’s faith. Not in the hierarchy of the Church, whose action of suspending Verryn from

CMM duties was shameful. The faith-renewing aspect is bound up with the prophetic figures who allowed the Spirit of God to use bricks and mortar to offer sanctuary, justice, compassion and hope in a way that is probably without precedent in the history of Central Missions.

Review by Reverend Brian J Brown, and first published in Methodist Recorder, Friday October 18, 2013.


Be Sociable, Share!

    SABATA-MPHO MOKAE’S Review – Diamond Fields Advertiser

    Diamond Fields Advertiser - LOGOSabata-Mpho Mokae reviewed Sanctuary in the Diamond Fields Advertiser. 


    “The building was viewed by many as only an eyesore and a problem, but for migrants into the city from elsewhere in South Africa and many other countries on the continent, and especially for people from Zimbabwe, it had become a refuge, a haven and a home.”

    This book tells the story of one of Johannesburg’s important institutions, the Central Methodist Mission. This reviewer read this book twice. Firstly because I was fortunate to be a worshipper at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg when refugees started trickling in, having realised that in the cold concrete jungle a church could be the only refuge.

    So, I was a witness when the history unfolded. But it was quite important that I read the book again, this time with the main objective being to review it.

    The central figure in this story is a well-known cleric, Bishop Paul Verryn, who opened the doors of the church to the vulnerable, much to the annoyance of nearby businesses and institutions.

    “Bishop Paul Verryn once told me that of his 37 years in the ministry, the last five years at the Central Methodist had been the toughest and the most rewarding – tough because of the difficulties of housing so many people, rewarding in ministering to them. Describing an inner-city church, he said, ‘You can either put a razor wire around the church or you can open the door.’ Verryn maintained an open door policy.”

    The author then leads us into this man and how he came to be where he was at the height of a xenophobic wave in the country.

    “When Bishop Peter Storey recommended Reverend Paul Verryn to become the Superintendent Minister at Central Methodist in 1997, he thought that Verryn would be an appropriate choice because he had ‘a very clear voice that was not afraid to raise the issues, to take on the powers.’

    In this book we read about Verryn’s unpopular stance on opening the doors to immigrants, most of whom were undocumented and therefore illegal. The Bishop appeared in front of the parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs.

    He was warned that by “harbouring illegal immigrants” he could be criminally charged.

    But what took place at Central Methodist was also influenced by the history of the church.

    The author takes us back to the establishment of the church at the height of the “gold rush” in 1887 and how it served the first diggers in the mining camps from ox-wagons.

    Later the Deaconess Institute was established as “the caring arm” of the church. Also in the 1980s the church offered office space to “problematic” organisations such as the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee and the Action Committee to Stop Eviction. The several pages of images in the centre of a book give a visual glimpse into the extent of the intervention of the church in the immigrants’ problem. In one image people are seen sleeping on cardboard boxes everywhere in the church hall.

    In another image Bishop Paul Verryn is officiating a marriage and in another baptising a baby. There is also a teacher who is giving lessons to immigrant children … and a troubling image of immigrants being prodded like sheep with a sjambok at the Home Affairs offices in Marabastad, Pretoria.

    But then the book goes into details on the origins and the extent of the refugee situation in Southern Africa, which I think is a good thing because readers are presented with a bigger picture and enough facts from which they can draw their own conclusions.

    It is not only at the Central Methodist were illegal immigrants “spilled” onto the inner-city … “at the end of 2010 there were 800 people living at the Central Methodist” which was down from its peak of 3000 in 2009. The church simply became a focal point and a litmus test for the country and its government. It also tested and revealed deep-seated attitudes of those who are supposed to profess to care for the vulnerable. Above all, this is the story of faith. Unshaken faith. The book also explores the church’s perceived and potential roles in an embattled era. At almost 400 pages and relatively long chapters, the book is well-detailed and is an easy read.

    This review was first published in Diamond Fields Advertiser, 26 July 2013 edition.



    Be Sociable, Share!

      Michele Magwood’s review in the Sunday Times

      Sunday Times LogoBelow is Michele Magwood’s review of Sanctuary in the Sunday Times (14.07.2013):

      There is a simple, striking image on one of the pages of this important book. Not David Goldblatt’s bird’s-eye photograph of a pitiable jigsaw of sleeping bodies; not the picture of Reverend Paul Verryn at the TRC hearings. It is the grainy photograph of a soaring stained-glass window in downtown Joburg’s Central Methodist Church, with a drooping line of washing hanging across it. It encapsulates a sort of stripped-down, muscled Christianity, a roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism that disdains religious pomp.

      As I stand looking up at the church with Christa Kuljian, people peel off from groups to come and greet her. A handshake, an embrace, a how-are-your-children? A Bostonian by birth, Kuljian has lived in South Africa for more than 20 years, three of which she spent getting under the skin of this church. Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk is the result.

      Central Methodist has been called the Ellis Island of South Africa — the stepping off point for immigrants. The famous line “send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me” would certainly apply to the church. “Except,” says Kuljian, “in America they were welcome. It was an official process.”

      Sanctuary touches on the history of Methodism in South Africa, the plain religion of the Cornish and Welsh miners that emphasised the tenet of “love thy neighbour”. The churches were called halls and designed with no stairs so anyone could walk in off the street. An accessible, workmanlike, practical religion.

      Practicality is the chief approach of Central Methodist’s firebrand bishop, Paul Verryn. Other leaders such as Peter Storey and Mvume Dandala feature in Kuljian’s book, but it is Verryn, inevitably, who takes centre stage. The church’s track runs from the conservative, charitable institution it was, through its middle years of firm-handed integration, its subversive hosting of protest meetings and its welcoming of activist groups such as the End Conscription Campaign, to the TRC hearings in 1996. In the annals of the struggle, Central Methodist is writ large.

      Kuljian explores Verryn’s background, his early ministry in the Eastern Cape, his years living among parishioners in Soweto, his bold activism. She devotes a chapter to the deplorable story of Stompie Seipei — kidnapped and murdered by the Mandela United Football Club — and the calumny of the accusations against Verryn. The claims that he abused boys in his care were engineered by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela herself and, although they were thrown out of court and exposed as lies at the TRC, they lingered, poisonously, for a long time.

      In 2008, as xenophobic violence raged across the city, hundreds of petrified migrants sought shelter at Central Methodist. And Verryn, as always, turned no one away. It was to bring him into conflict with his neighbours in the city, the police and municipal authorities, and his own church.

      “Paul is a complex person,” says Kuljian. “On the one hand, he’s an intensely compassionate listener. On the other hand, he can come down hard on people he feels threaten his authority. But he sees the dignity and potential in everyone.”

      With admirable fluency, Kuljian maps the Byzantine politics of the church and, just when one begins to grow weary of acronyms and alliances, she splices in moving personal histories of the refugees: stories of brutality and suffering but also of weddings, jobs, baptisms and diplomas.

      “There are still hundreds of people who sleep here at night,” Kuljian says, as we walk up the stairs. The smell in the corridors is pungent, the ceiling tiles above us warped and stained. But all is clean and ordered. In the echoing sanctuary, the clean lines of the architecture lift up the eyes to the copper cross.

      First published in the Sunday Times, 14th of July 2013.


      Be Sociable, Share!

        Reflections on Fifth Anniv of May 2008 Xenophobic Violence

        May 2008 was a tragic month in South Africa’s history.  Over sixty people lost their lives in violence that targeted foreign nationals, and tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes.  Events at that time showed that the fuse was only waiting for a match.

        Over the past five years, the conditions that created May 2008 have continued to simmer.  Poverty and unemployment rates are high.  Inequality is extreme.  Many police continue to criminalise foreign nationals.  Many in Home Affairs continue to make it difficult for foreign nationals to normalize their stay.  Organisations that monitor violence against foreign nationals have recorded that one or two events continue to occur every week.

        So now May 2013, the fifth anniversary of May 2008, is behind us.  May 2013 also showed a flare of violence against foreign nationals.  First, several shops owned by foreign nationals – Pakistanis and Ethiopians – in Orange Farm, Sebokeng and Evaton were looted in the Vaal.  Over a hundred people were arrested.  The police and government suggested that it was crime rather than xenophobia.  Several days later, shops owned by foreign nationals in Diepsloot were looted.  A Somali shop owner was arrested for allegedly shooting two Zimbabwean nationals.  Some reports suggest that the shop owner had repeatedly been attacked and robbed prior to the shooting.  Again the reaction of government was to say that this is crime, not xenophobia.

        Can we agree that it is both?

        The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits held a seminar in May to review conditions leading to xenophobic violence.  Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher with ACMS, said “There is nothing on the ground to prevent what happened in 2008.  The signs are very clear and there are no preventative measures in place.”  Misago suggested that the nature of xenophobic violence has shifted somewhat over the past five years.  “In 2008, all foreigners were attacked and it was widespread.  Now, foreign traders are being attacked by local business associations who see the businesses as illegitimate.”  These sentiments have the potential to build resentment against the foreign traders.

        Statements from the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Home Affairs can have an impact on attitudes towards foreign nationals.  Prompt and decisive action on the part of the police and government against looting and violence can also have an impact.  We can’t sit back and wait for another anniversary to see what happens next.  People in all levels of leadership – local and national – need to speak out now and take action now against crime, looting and xenophobic violence.


        Be Sociable, Share!

          Q&A with Scalabrini Centre about Writing ‘Sanctuary’

          The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT) works with migrants and refugees.  Daluxolo Moloantoa, a freelance journalist, asked me the following ten questions for the Scalabrini Centre blog.

          1.  How did the idea for the book come about?
          In May 2008, events around the xenophobic violence shocked many of us.  Central Methodist Church was in the headlines at the time, which is when I first thought that I would like to write something about CMC.

          2.  When did you start, and how long was the process from idea to finished book?
          It took two years for me to start working on the idea of writing something about CMC.  It was in April 2010 when I received the Ruth First Fellowship from Wits Journalism that I moved forward with my idea.  I then started to research and write a long article about CMC that would form the text of the Ruth First Memorial Lecture that I gave in August 2010.

          It turns out that two people from Jacana Media were in the audience of the lecture.  Some months later, they asked if I would be interested in expanding the lecture into a book.  My answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’  I continued to work on the book until it went to the printer in the middle of February 2013.  So from beginning my research until the finished product, it took me three years.

          3.  How did the people inside the church itself feel about someone from the outside coming inside to write about them? Did you experience any challenges in this regard?
          There were large numbers of journalists, local and international, that visited CMC over the years and interviewed residents.  When I first visited CMC in April 2010, I was fortunate that I did not have a short deadline.  I was able to spend time there over several months before writing the Ruth First Lecture.  I made it clear to people what I was working on, and only interviewed people who were interested in working with me on the project.

          About twenty residents from CMC attended the Ruth First Lecture and were encouraged by what I had to say about CMC.  I believe that these two factors – 1) having a longer period of time to spend on the project, and 2) sharing my work with people prior to embarking on the book –  helped build trust between myself and CMC residents.  When I shared the idea of working on a book, many people thought that it was a good idea.

          I continued to get to know people at CMC over a long period of time.  When I finished the draft manuscript, I read quotes and stories, which people had shared with me, back to them so that we could agree that all was in order, or so that I could make necessary changes and corrections.  This process meant that people offered input and were not shocked to see the content of the final product.  It was important to me that people found the process respectful.

          4.  How did you go about gathering the various facts for the book together, given the potentially disruptive working scenario in the church? 
          I did a great deal of research inside and outside of CMC. My research included reading newspaper articles and research papers, face to face interviews, phone interviews, attending meetings and workshops, and spending time at Central Methodist just hanging around and talking to people.  For the interviews inside CMC, I would try to set aside quiet time and space for a conversation but that wasn’t always possible.

          5.  What challenges did you have to deal with in writing the entire narrative?
          One of the big challenges was finding the best structure for the entire narrative.  At first, I wasn’t sure how the book should begin.  I had chapters that covered current events, as well as chapters that covered historic events.  I put together several different outlines.  In late February 2012, I put different blocks of coloured paper, representing different chapters, up on my wall, deciding which order would work best.  I started in the present, went back in time to the historic chapters and then worked my way back to the present again.

          Many of the events I was writing about happened before I arrived on the scene so it was a challenge to recreate events.  After all of my research and interviews, I wanted to write about events in a way that would bring them to life.  That was a challenge.

          When I put all the chapters together in one document, I realized that I had written the entire book in the present tense and I decided to change it to the past tense.

          I also struggled with the issue of how often to write in the first person and when to write in the third person.  I tended to shy away from writing in the first person, but realized that it was necessary in certain parts of the book for me to share my personal experience.

          6.  What was the biggest revelation for you in writing the book?
          When I began my research, I did not expect to find that events within Central Methodist Church mirrored many of the challenges facing the city of Johannesburg as a whole from its birth in 1886 through to the present.

          At first I was writing about the crisis at Central Methodist in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  Then I found myself writing about the history of Central Methodist from its founding in 1886 through to the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Then I realized that Central Methodist was a microcosm of Johannesburg over time, pre-apartheid, during apartheid and post-apartheid.  I found it amazing to chart developments in the City by looking at events at CMC.

          7.  Whom amongst the dozens of individuals you came across during the process, would you say was  most interesting or remarkable, and why?
          ‘Sanctuary’ is not a full biography of any one person.  It is a book about the lives of many people that came together in one place.  It is that place that I found most interesting and remarkable.

          However, I must say that it is the stories of individuals in the book that brings it to life.  From Lindiwe Myeza in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to Cleo Buthelezi in the 2000s.  From Reverend Peter Storey to Reverend Mvume Dandala to Reverend Paul Verryn.  From Leothere Nininahazwe of Burundi and Monica Chiwetu of Zimbabwe and many, many more.

          8.  What are your thoughts on the role of non-governmental organizations such as the Methodist Church in advocating on behalf of migrant communities in South Africa?
          Many non-governmental organisations (not only Central Methodist) have worked with the migrant community in South Africa.  They have played a very important role.  Some have helped with access to basic services.  Others have offered advice on documentation, and advocated for people’s legal rights under South Africa’s constitution.

          9.  What was the biggest highlight for you in the entire period writing the book?
          One of the biggest thrills for me was seeing the book back from the printer.  I remember receiving the phone call from my publisher, Jacana Media, saying that they had an advance copy of ‘Sanctuary’ for me.  I was so nervous.  It was so overwhelming and emotional to see all that work come together in book form and to hold it in my hands for the first time.

          10.  Do you see a situation in future where the Central Methodist Church Pritchard Street church returns to being an ordinary church again?
          Central Methodist has never been an ‘ordinary’ church so it is unlikely that it will become ‘ordinary’ in the future.  On the other hand, Central Methodist continues to hold Sunday services for its congregation every week.  So in that sense, it continues as an ‘ordinary’ church.

          You can link to the Scalabrini Centre blog at:


          Be Sociable, Share!