South African Methodists offer hope to Zimbabwe refugees

By staff writers
July 27, 2007

South African Methodists are offering a 'ray of hope' to homeless asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people crowding into the capital city of Johannesburg - writes Linda Bloom for the United Methodist News Service.

At Central Methodist Mission, the refugees find shelter, food, clothing, child care, counseling and employment assistance. The mission accommodated some 900 in just the first three months of 2007, and an average of 20 new people arrive each day - the majority from Zimbabwe.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has assisted by providing US$ 25,000 in grants in the first half of 2007, according to David Sadoo, an UMCOR executive. The grants are "keeping the lights on," he said, and covering other infrastructure costs, "as well as supporting some of the actual programs they have with the refugees."

More than 3,000 people have received services at the mission in the past 15 months. "Since the end of the apartheid government, refugees from all over Africa have sought safety and economic opportunity in South Africa," according to a funding application to UMCOR from the staff at Central Methodist Mission, led by Bishop Paul Verryn. "The worsening situation in Zimbabwe, however, has created a near crisis situation."

The South African government does not recognize Zimbabweans as official refugees. "Individual Zimbabweans who seek to apply for political asylum are confronted by excessive levels of bureaucracy, often waiting more than nine months for their status to be assessed, as well as high levels of corruption in the South African Department of Home Affairs," the application states.

"While applying for refugee status, Zimbabweans are regularly harassed by South African police, detained and often beaten. Like other foreigners in Johannesburg, they are vulnerable to the growing levels of xenophobia and violence against foreigners which are increasingly prevalent in South African society."

Through the "Ray of Hope" project, the mission has managed to provide temporary and safe accommodations for homeless asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people; offer one substantial meal each day for temporary residents; and provide food and supplies for infants whose mothers have no financial support.

The project also ensures clean facilities for temporary residents, access to clean water for drinking and washing, and an adequate supply of basic medicines and supplies.

The Rev Carleen Gerber, pastor of First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut, a United Church of Christ congregation, has witnessed the amazing but difficult work at the Johannesburg church. First Congregational has partnered with the Methodist Church of Southern Africa for 20 years and helped Central Methodist make the connection with UMCOR.

"We really have been so grateful for the level of support and the continuity of support that UMCOR has given," she said.

First Congregational has raised about $8,000 for the project. "We knew that the refugee crisis had been brewing, and there were refugees living in the building," Gerber explained. But it was not until she led a congregational trip to Johannesburg in October 2006 that they "realized the scope of the need."

The sheer numbers can be overwhelming - both for the church staff and the physical plant itself. Central Methodist, for example, has six toilets available for approximately 700 people staying there at any one time. "The conditions are exceedingly difficult," she said.

Circumstances have transformed the six-story, inner-city church into a village, according to Gerber. The offices, classrooms and social service spaces where the church's regular programs operate during the day are given over to the refugees in the evening. Everyone has communal responsibilities, and attendance is required at nightly worship services. Music and "wonderful fellowship" often follow, she noted.

Several of the bigger rooms are allotted to women and children and to married couples. "The biggest number (of refugees) would be single men," she said. "They may have left family behind. They are literally sleeping all over the floors and the stairways and outside the elevators."

Many of the refugees from Zimbabwe are teachers or other professionals and some teach classes at the church. "They're bright, often highly educated people," Gerber said.

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