This book is the story of the Central Methodist Mission in down-town Johannesburg. Much of it is based on the writer’s own experience of and association with that inner-city church community and its leaders in recent years. She also includes portraits of individuals who have been helped in their times of tribulation by a church that has taken literally the Christian injunction to love one’s neighbour.
The history of Methodism in Johannesburg is as old as the city itself. There were miners, including Cornishmen and Welshmen, in the first congregations of the Central Halls, which was built and operated in the tradition of such places in both Britain and Australia, not like conventional parish churches. In the early 1900s it was a white English-speaking community with, even then, a strong record of both evangelism and service to the poor and needy. Successive ministers in charge included such as William Meara and Joe Webb. Peter Storey arrived at Central Methodist in 1976, and the extent and pace in the social outreach increased greatly. The church became a vibrant and controversial centre for involvement in the community welfare of the city far beyond the provision of religious services and pastoral care of the enlisted faithful. This continued after 1991 under his successor Mvumi Dandala, and even more so with the appointment of Paul Verryn in 1997.
Since then both social involvement and controversy have increased. The flow of distressed people, especially from Zimbabwe, and the growing poverty-stricken numbers in the inner city have seen both the accommodation of literally thousands of people in the overcrowded premises of the Central Methodist Mission and the all too understandable exodus of most of the old congregation to the suburbs. The church has experienced xenophobic turmoil, especially in 2008; police raids; some criminal activity and health problems among those sheltering in the church; and the ills that accompany unemployment.
The book talks freely and openly of the role of the Methodist Church leaders; of the actions or lack of them of the municipality; of the relationship with those who work in the buildings surrounding the church; of the unhelpful policies of the government especially in relation to Zimbabwe and Aids; and of the police. The pivotal part played by Bishop Paul Verryn since 1997 and his relationship with his own Methodist Church – far from free of tension as it has been – is covered with both critical and appreciative sympathy. The book, published in 2013, stops because it had to go to press, but the story is unfinished and will continue even as you read it.
Read this book to make you ponder on what, if any, the limits and boundaries should be to Christian charity. Read it to consider whose the responsibility is for each sorely needed welfare action. Read it to start thinking what the nature, design and purposes of church buildings should be. Think again about how liturgy links to life, and about how your congregation within the church walls relates to the people outside, and what we should do when they come inside those walls.
The book is a testimony to many who have lived out their faith with courage and a loving spirit, both giving and receiving. But don’t read it if you prefer not to be disturbed.
Reviewed by John Gardener
For more information or to purchase a copy of the book online (R218,88), click on http://www.jacana.co.za/ebooks/1948-sanctuary-by-christa-kuljian