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Mother of a City: Michele Magwood on Sanctuary by Christa Kuljian

SanctuarySanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk
Christa Kuljian, Jacana, R220
**** (4/5 stars)

There is a simple, striking image on one of the pages of this important book. Not David Goldblatt’s bird’s-eye photograph of a pitiable jigsaw of sleeping bodies; not the picture of Reverend Paul Verryn at the TRC hearings. It is the grainy photograph of a soaring stained-glass window in downtown Joburg’s Central Methodist Church, with a drooping line of washing hanging across it. It encapsulates a sort of stripped-down, muscled Christianity, a roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism that disdains religious pomp.

As I stand looking up at the church with Christa Kuljian, people peel off from groups to come and greet her. A handshake, an embrace, a how-are-yourchildren? A Bostonian by birth, Kuljian has lived in South Africa for more than 20 years, three of which she spent getting under the skin of this church. Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk is the result.

Central Methodist has been called the Ellis Island of South Africa — the steppingoff point for immigrants. The famous line “send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me” would certainly apply to the church. “Except,” says Kuljian, “in America they were welcome. It was an official process.”

Sanctuary touches on the history of Methodism in South Africa, the plain religion of the Cornish and Welsh miners that emphasised the tenet of “love thy neighbour”. The churches were called halls and designed with no stairs so anyone could walk in off the street. An accessible, workmanlike, practical religion.

Practicality is the chief approach of Central Methodist’s firebrand bishop, Paul Verryn. Other leaders such as Peter Storey and Mvume Dandala feature in Kuljian’s book, but it is Verryn, inevitably, who takes centre stage. The church’s track runs from the conservative, charitable institution it was, through its middle years of firm-handed integration, its subversive hosting of protest meetings and its welcoming of activist groups such as the End Conscription Campaign, to the TRC hearings in 1996. In the annals of the struggle, Central Methodist is writ large.

Kuljian explores Verryn’s background, his early ministry in the Eastern Cape, his years living among parishioners in Soweto, his bold activism. She devotes a chapter to the deplorable story of Stompie Seipei — kidnapped and murdered by the Mandela United Football Club — and the calumny of the accusations against Verryn. The claims that he abused boys in his care were engineered by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela herself and, although they were thrown out of court and exposed as lies at the TRC, they lingered, poisonously, for a long time.

In 2008, as xenophobic violence raged across the city, hundreds of petrified migrants sought shelter at Central Methodist. And Verryn, as always, turned no one away. It was to bring him into conflict with his neighbours in the city, the police and municipal authorities, and his own church.

“Paul is a complex person,” says Kuljian. “On the one hand, he’s an intensely compassionate listener. On the other hand, he can come down hard on people he feels threaten his authority. But he sees the dignity and potential in everyone.”

With admirable fluency, Kuljian maps the Byzantine politics of the church and, just when one begins to grow weary of acronyms and alliances, she splices in moving personal histories of the refugees: stories of brutality and suffering but also of weddings, jobs, baptisms and diplomas.

“There are still hundreds of people who sleep here at night,” Kuljian says, as we walk up the stairs. The smell in the corridors is pungent, the ceiling tiles above us warped and stained. But all is clean and ordered. In the echoing sanctuary, the clean lines of the architecture lift up the eyes to the copper cross.

— @michelemagwood

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