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No neighborly love for Soweto minister

In South Africa, the Rev. Paul Verryn takes in refugees, hundreds of them, and nearby businesses don't like the chaos. Now even his church has turned against him.

February 13, 2010|By Robyn Dixon

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — If the gun hadn't jammed 16 years ago, the Methodist minister would not be alive.

The messy chaos of refugees in his church in central Johannesburg would not exist. The crowd of people who sleep on the floor in his home would not have a place to lay their heads.

The poor who wait at his door until midnight, or 2 a.m. or even 5 a.m. to talk to him would not be there. Their terrible stories would not be listened to. And the Rev. Paul Verryn would not carry their pain.

But the gun did jam.


To neighbors of the Central Methodist Church, Verryn is a pest, like one of those old ladies who collects hundreds of stray cats and makes the neighborhood stink. But he takes in people.

Sometimes 3,000 Zimbabwean refugees sleep in his church. Most evenings, crowds loiter, carrying their lives in plastic bags, waiting to get inside for the night. The church, five stories tall, is crammed full by nighttime. Huddled, shapeless forms fill the stairways. There's a constant shuffling hubbub, the occasional raucous shout.

When they bed down, Verryn carefully picks his way through, searching for places to step.

It lowers the tone of this already frayed downtown neighborhood, some think. Shopkeepers and local companies hate the chaos.

Verryn had death threats last April. Police arrested two men who admitted that local businessmen had paid them $4,000 to kill him, according to news reports.

In the center of downtown, Verryn's church fuels angst over the massive influx of Zimbabwean refugees into South Africa in recent years. In xenophobic violence against foreigners in 2008, the church was attacked by mobs.

Gauteng province lawmakers threatened to close the church in October, calling it "a horror" and "a ticking time bomb."

"If I could have it my way, I would close it down today," Molebatsi Bopape, the chairwoman of the legislature's health and social development committee, said at the time.

And now even his superiors have turned against him.

Verryn, whose 10-year term as the Methodist bishop of central Johannesburg ended in November, has been suspended from the church for talking to journalists and initiating court action, without permission, to appoint an independent curator to protect children at the church. Mediators will settle the matter.

His Soweto home is always crowded. Sometimes 20 people sleep on the floor, in spare rooms, on couches. Some have been there for years. Others come, hearing that he won't turn them away. It's like a comfortable old railway station, people sharing their stories between journeys.

"I feel sorry for homeless people. But then I go home," said Mary Metcalfe, a friend who has known him since the 1980s. "Paul's never learned that. He's not going to have an empty room when there are people in need.

"His bedroom is his only private space," said Metcalfe, who was one of the longtime confidants interviewed in place of Verryn, who cannot speak to journalists, his lawyers say, pending the hearing on his suspension. "The lounge, the dining room have people, because he would not be able to say, 'I'm sorry for you,' and then go home to an empty house."

In 2005, Verryn told an interviewer that he sometimes regretted never marrying, but thought that his 21-hour workday would have been tough on a family. In any case, there's no one else to burden when he takes in yet another person.

Metcalfe comes several evenings a week with supper and a piece of cake, knowing he wouldn't eat otherwise.

He confessed a recent mistake to her over supper one evening. Arriving home late, he heard about a homeless Zimbabwean man living alone on the Soweto dump. He went there in the middle of the night, found the man and took him to his home, full of people as usual.

But it was too much for the homeless man, who'd been isolated and couldn't cope with the crowd. He stayed a short time, then fled. When Verryn went to the dump searching again, he'd disappeared.

"Paul told me about this because he felt bad. In retrospect he might have found a different setting for the man," Metcalfe said. "He felt critical of himself for not having been perceptive enough to realize."

Verryn looks exactly as one would imagine an ordinary middle-aged cleric: average height, kindly eyes, spectacles, an open-necked shirt, gray beard and hair.

His appearance belies his courage. As an anti-apartheid activist, Verryn moved to Soweto in 1988 as minister, one of the few whites to live in the township. He often hid black activists in his home, including a tough 14-year-old boy named Stompie Seipei, an anti-apartheid activist who'd been jailed at 11.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, then-wife of jailed activist Nelson Mandela, lived in the area with her thuggish bodyguards known as the Mandela United Football Club.

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