‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” Karl Marx said in the 1800s.
We live in a vastly different world today but the German philosopher’s words resonate deeply with Paul Verryn, a man of God based at the Soweto Methodist Church.
Many quote Marx in arguments against religion but the 63-year-old minister views his words differently: as a challenge. He maintains that those who call themselves believers should not just be preaching, praying and evangelicising but “going to places of darkness to bring light”.
Verryn spoke to the Mail & Guardian about his relationship with God, the importance of religion and how his journey has changed.
The activist/ pastor/ human rights campaigner has made many stands, but the one he’s most well known for is the fight he put up for thousands of refugees in the Johannesburg city centre.
As the superintendent of the Central Methodist Church, Verryn had an open-door policy towards the vulnerable and destitute. Homeless locals and undocumented African migrants seeking shelter were welcomed and given a place to sleep or regroup. In 2008, the situation escalated when thousands of Zimbabweans arrived in Johannesburg, fleeing political turmoil in their country. Homeless, jobless and facing increasing xenophobic threats, many found sanctuary in the church.
“Marx’s dictum remains for me the tantalising challenge. What happens is that the masses go through religious experiences week after week and that gives them an opportunity to escape the realities they have to face,” Verryn explains.
The reality he speaks of is not pretty. Having worked daily with those who live on the edges of society, desperate for a meal, a job and basic things most of us take for granted, Verryn knows that holy words are not enough; they have to be put into practice.
Before he left the Central Methodist Church at the end of 2014, he would don his white robe and stand before a congregation of between 50 and 200 congregants, depending on the season, preaching.
His messages, never devoid of biblical quotes, were layered with examples of the reality of people around them: xenophobia, displacement, hunger, sorrow … Verryn never failed to remind his congregation (I was one of them) that the message they had just received was only the beginning, the mission of changing lives would begin once they stepped outside the doors on to Smit Street.
“The buildings outside there are filled with darkness, but not the literal darkness. They are housing the most hurt and needy of this world … It is up to us to bring the light to them to make the change,” he once said at the end of a sermon.
When xenophobic violence broke in 2008, refugees and undocumented foreigners were chased out of their homes and had their belongings burnt to ash. The church was their only sanctuary. It swelled with hundreds desperate for shelter and safety. Some nights there were more than 3 000 people, including young children, crammed inside.
Many ended up living there for years, finding a sense of home, however fragile, with services such as schools and a clinic.
Verryn’s efforts were lauded by the media, but he came under fire from government authorities for slum conditions, overcrowding, health and safety risks, and fuelling criminal activity. There was internal and government pressure to have the church shut down and reports of a power struggle between Verryn and the church leadership. In 2010 he was suspended over dubious allegations of mistreatment of the refugees and for flouting the church’s regulations. He successfully mounted a legal challenge to clear his name and went back to his work.
Three years later, the church and city officials renewed their efforts to have the church as a place of shelter shut down. It evicted the remaining refugees and shut its doors to them in December 2014. According to some reports, Verryn was forced out, but he says it was his decision to leave.
“At the time people needed the church and the church became a place not only to worship and praise but also to heal and rebuild. I got to a point where I felt the season had come to an end. When the church met to consider whether to invite me again as a superintendent I said I was not available,” he said.
Verryn then joined the church’s Jabavu branch in Soweto, where he has lived since the 1980s. He continues the fight for those who are broken, traumatised and need healing, earning him the title of “liberation theologist in action” from his supporters.
The minister, who went to school at St Stithians and holds a divinity degree from Rhodes University, has also amassed a fan base. The Friends of Paul Verryn Facebook page pays homage to the anti-xenophobia and healing work he’s doing across communities, including in Marikana.
“Legally speaking the mine bosses can fire and hire as they please but morally they are bringing death to these communities. They are stripping the land, using the workers, and then fire them without a thought. The communities I have worked with are living in squalor while the bosses are enriched.”
Verryn speaks broadly about his current work that stretches from Port Elizabeth to Rustenburg. He laughs when asked how much time he has to spare to pray and meditate.
“I spend a lot of my time in my car driving from one destination to another. Trust me: I have ample time to speak to God.”
Verryn believes that a relationship with God forces one to have a relationship with the people around you. He says this should be the cornerstone of every community. But to get to this point, a transition needs to be made by every congregant, minister and religion.
“Mvume Dandala used to speak about how do we shift from maintenance to mission. This is not simply [giving] a ‘you are an object of my evangelism and I need to pump you full of God’ speech so that you give your life to Jesus and talk in tongues and join the choir and, and, and. Actually [that] stuff doesn’t open your eyes to the reality of this world.”
For him the transition from prayer to mission has been cemented by the work he has done outside the church for more than four decades.
Verryn’s latest initiative speaks directly to how faith is not abstract but a tool of healing. He has been mandated by the Church Unity Commission, a coalition of churches, to head up interfaith hearings across the country where South Africans can speak openly and fearlessly about painful, traumatic experiences they have endured.
The project is modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings conducted post-1994. Verryn says the aim is to open up an avenue for people who did not find closure at the TRC or did not get to participate. This work will also facilitate a healing process for victims of trauma, xenophobia, violence, labour disputes and displacement.
Chapters have already been set up in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape, where participants are tackling issues most pertinent in their communities. The Western Cape chapter has identified land as one of the primary issues to tackle.
“Your faith-based communities are the most connected and networked than any political party,” Verryn says. “Through faith and a relationship with God we are able to change lives and help with the healing process of a people.”
Athandiwe Saba is a news reporter at the Mail &Guardian.