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Sounthern Africa

Anticipate a changed Africa - Verryn

As starvation tightens its grip across Zimbabwe, increasingly desperate exiles brave the crocodile-infested waters of the Limpopo to try their luck in South Africa. Pregnant women and mothers with young children drag themselves to Johannesburg, where many of them appeal to the churches for safe haven.
15 March 2006 - Martine Stemerick
Source: TheZimbabwean

At Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Mission, Bishop Paul Verryn works tirelessly with volunteers and staff to feed and shelter these homeless refugees. In the endless queue of people waiting each day outside his office, five or more are from Zimbabwe. Without a regular source of food or blankets, the Bishop stretches scant supplies to meet the most pressing needs.

Women and children sleep in the sanctuary of the church every night, while homeless men wrap themselves in blankets and sleep head-to-toe like sardines in the meeting rooms above. Conditions for 200 people in a church building not meant for housing are a nightmare, said the Bishop, but a far sight better than living rough on the inner-city streets.

Some of the women appealing for help are refugees in the truest sense of the word. “Just recently we had a small family of a child, a mother and a father who came down. They had been to an MDC rally, leaving their seven-year-old at home. He had been beaten up and was crying outside the house. They decided to move. I won’t tell you of the rest of her story because it is too horrendous for words, but they certainly left Zimbabwe in great fear of their lives.”

Young girls harassed to join the youth militia are also appearing more frequently at Verryn’s office.

Inner-city missions like Central Methodist in Johannesburg are hugely important in meeting the needs of the poor, but resources for this kind of ministry are thin. The church co-ordinates a feeding scheme for rough sleepers, but it isn’t enough.

“What we need first of all is funding to get this building into a state of acceptable cleanliness. The second would be if we could cook at least one balanced meal at a central spot every day for everybody because people are scrounging all sorts of food from rubbish bins. I worry myself sick that they are going to get poisoned because they are not eating fresh food and because many of them are already health compromised,” said Verryn.

“And once one starts that kind of feeding scheme, it needs to be sustainable. You can’t raise people’s expectations and then tell them, ‘No, for the next four weeks, there’s not going to be any food.’ So, that’s the second thing. Third, there are basic needs for people to be able to get to and from the Home Affairs department . Most of that happens in Pretoria, so that’s a train fare there and back.”

Although the outside world may think that what is happening at Central Methodist is commendable, Verryn finds himself “very ambivalent about the quality of what we are able to do here and would want it to be very different.”

“Some of the people we have in the building are extraordinary people: accountants, school teachers, qualified nurses, a doctor. Some are very ingenuous in the way they are making jobs and little projects trying to begin. So, sometimes just a little seed money for somebody to go and start a small business would make all the difference. We have wire artists, people who are making fly fishing lures. We have ballroom dancing, a drama group, all sorts of enterprises. Our goal is to try to enable people to take responsibility for their lives; to reduce dependency is a critical priority.”

Verryn urged the Church to pray for a politically sustainable solution for the Zimbabwean crisis.

“The second thing I would pray for is that while peace is not in place, people seeking asylum and refuge find a more humane welcome in the countries to which they flee, and that in South Africa, we have the opportunity for them to be granted full refugee status, almost in response to the way we were hosted and cared for during the difficult years by the Zimbabwean government of that time.

“And thirdly, it would be so good if we could pray for the health of refugees on every level. Some people come here who are really very sick. They are young people and there isn’t enough to sustain them and bring them to a place of health. Unfortunately, we have had two people die in hospital in the last week: one young man of 19 and another who has a two-month-old baby back in Zimbabwe. The tragedy is enormous so health is a big issue for us.

“And then finally, prayers that begin to recognize that this is a ‘God moment’ for us in South Africa. That Zimbabweans and people from the DRC and other exiles who seek help are a gift, especially to the Christian community. It’s an opportunity for us to open our hands and knuckle down and be what we say we are. And in actual fact to be transformation agents and to recognize that the people who come across our borders are given to us for a very short while. And that they may be the people who ultimately are the agents of change when they return to their countries. And for us to use the opportunity of them being over here to inculcate standards of care and humanity that anticipate a changed Africa. Those are my prayers for the church in Lent.”

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