I’m really thankful to have had the opportunity to talk with Paul Verryn, former Bishop in the central district of the Methodist Church of South Africa, who has been a front-runner in providing hospitality to literally thousands of immigrants and refugees in Johannesburg, South Africa. Hearing his stories is like listening to the stories of the many pastors south of the US border who are opening church doors to immigrants and refugees, and so whether you’re in South Africa or the US, I’m sure you’ll be left with something to think about!
Paul Verryn began providing shelter to homeless people in the Central Methodist church on a very modest scale several years ago. He and his co-workers came to realize that many of these homeless people were immigrants and refugees, and that is when they first became aware of the need to provide hospitality for immigrants. Then, in the mid-2000’s, the number of Zimbabweans fleeing the violence and poverty in their home country grew rapidly, and the number of people needing shelter in the church began expanding. Situated relatively near Park Station, the church became a gateway of sorts for the many traumatized and impoverished immigrants and refugees. Then, in 2008, with the xenophobic attacks, the number seeking shelter and aid pushed into the thousands (estimates are from 3-5 000). It’s estimated that 30,000 immigrants and refugees have passed through this church over the years. Paul says that obviously with that many people living in close quarters issues of health and safety arise, and they learned the importance of putting in community life guidelines to ensure people’s safety. The organization “Doctors without Borders” also helped at that time, and the church worked to try and link people up with other relevant NGO’s, and advocacy groups, as well as petitioning the government to provide better alternatives for the immigrants who feared for their lives. The church was also subject to government raids (officials looking to deport illegal immigrants), which Verryn tried to prohibit.
Paul says, “The church was never meant to be a destination, it’s meant to empower.” Now that the worst of the xenophobic violence in South Africa has somewhat abated, the emphasis is on connecting immigrants with opportunities and skills rather than providing temporary housing. The Albert Street school which was started in conjunction with the refugee ministry is continuing, with excellent examination results. Paul is adamant that the help that is offered to immigrants in South Africa does not trap people in the “prison house of dependency.” He goes on to say, “We’ve got to be sure that we are not just putting a plaster on a wound. If we want a person to be set free, we must empower the whole person.”
Paul says, “When you’re working with immigrants, there is the opportunity for exponential learning. I’ve learned so much about the different cultures and nations around South Africa—not only Zimbabwe, but Burundi, Rwanda, the DRC, Tanzania. People have migrated for different reasons- politics, poverty (and usually a combination of these, since they affect each other), and I have learned about these issues first hand–It’s people you are dealing with, it’s individuals. It’s this specific man and his wife and child.”
Paul points out that the current government legislation on immigration in South Africa (along with the shutting down of reception centers) has negatively impacted the lives of the immigrants he works with. He points out that a lot of talk and policy around immigration is irresponsible, because it lumps people who are criminals (who deal drugs, weapons and commit violent crime) together with “illegal immigrants” in the name of justice. Immigrants are forced through in inefficient system that is full of impossible backlogs and delays, all the while putting themselves at risk of deportation. However because of this manipulative language, anyone who opposes reform is painted to look as if they are against justice and rule of law.
Paul links it back to how we view the other: “People have always migrated. Whether for political or economic reasons, people have migrated throughout history, and when people migrate we see an explosion of different art and music and new fusions and exciting interactions. We should be disturbed at this view of immigrants as criminal and invasive. We in South Africa, of all places, should see that our history has taught us how profoundly stupid it is to criminalize the other. For so many years we locked up 80% of this country’s potential.” Paul feels we are doing the same thing with these immigration policies.
I’ve asked everyone I’ve talked to about hospitality to share something practical that we can do to welcome immigrants and strangers. Here is what Paul had to say…
“I want to echo what Pope Francis said about the current Syrian refugee crisis “Every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family.” You can help one person. You can get involved in helping just one person get further skills, gain independence, and they will be empowered to help and upskill others. As South Africans, we need to see the value in opening the door to someone. Opening the door is opening possibility for that person. You’ll be a part of not only transforming another life, but you’ll learn a huge amount about yourself and your own compassion.”
Paul points out that the issue of xenophobia confronts us with the struggle that every human has with prejudice; whether that’s prejudice against someone’s skin, age, or gender. When we encounter difference, how we respond reveals something inside of us. Paul says: “As we allow ourselves to share in the exploration of our diversity, it liberates a piece of our humanity and we interact to our full potential. Whether we are interacting with the poor, the immigrant or anyone who is different to ourselves. That has been a gift. This isn’t only about immigrants and refugees, it’s also about the poor in South Africa”.