While many churches around the world have temporarily closed their doors due to COVID-19, Cape Town’s Central Methodist Mission has not had a regular service since last Christmas. Normal church operations were interrupted in late October of 2019 when a few hundred refugees sought refuge in the sanctuary. They remained in the building for five months until they were evicted during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown.
I occasionally attended Central Methodist Mission in 2016 and 2017 while I worked in Pretoria, South Africa and often travelled to Cape Town. Last December, when I was back in South Africa’s “Mother City,” I saw the situation at the church first-hand. While most of the refugees who were residing in the church vacated the sanctuary during the service I attended, there were bags of clothing and bedding under the pews and piled in the entryway. Many men, women and children had been sleeping in the church and the smell of sweat and unlaundered clothes felt heavy in the summertime air.
Staying in the church
Last October, many refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi camped out in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square. The square is home to kiosks that sell tourist goods, and it abuts onto large buildings that house offices for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other companies and restaurants. On the other side of the square is Central Methodist Mission, a historic church building built in 1880 with a diverse congregation that has a history of activism against apartheid and for social justice.
The refugees had come to Greenmarket Square to protest their poor conditions in South Africa and ask the UNHCR to provide them with safety and an opportunity to be resettled to another country. After being in the square for a few weeks, a court order indicated that the refugees must leave, and the police came to evict them. In the fracas that evolved, Rev. Alan Storey opened the doors of his church and many refugees entered to seek refuge from the police.
Soon after, Rev. Storey told SABC News the church had opened its doors “to help people in a moment of crisis” but that “now the safe space has become unsafe.” Attempts to broker an agreement to assist the refugee community and help them leave the church fell through. Many refugees asked to be relocated to another country and refused to cooperate with officials who wanted to send them to so-called “safe” locations within South Africa.
Due to this impasse, the refugees remained in the church. The small sanctuary was overwhelmed. Sanitation was a great concern and the risk of a fire was heavy on the minds of the church leadership and public health officials.
Tragedy also befell the refugee community. One afternoon in late November, four teenagers died from drowning in the ocean when they had walked to the beach for a swim. In late December, a fight broke out between two factions of the community staying at the church. One of the leaders was arrested and some of the refugees remained outside the church to separate the two groups.
The church’s worship schedule was disrupted. While refugees and parishioners shared the space for the first few Sundays, a misunderstanding on December 8 resulted in the refugees leaving the sanctuary during worship. After Christmas, the church moved their regular services to another Methodist church a few kilometers away.
Throughout this time, Rev. Storey recognized that the refugees had many legitimate grievances and encouraged his congregation to advocate for their rights. While asking the refugees to vacate the church, Rev. Storey emphasized the need for everyone to work towards improving the situation for refugees in South Africa.
One of the refugees in the church, Ms. Nadine Nkurukiye, originally from Burundi, told the BBC that she was remaining in the church to ask for assistance: “What I’m only asking is for the UNHCR to help us, to give us a place where we can be safe. Where they can accept us like human beings, because South Africa doesn’t treat us like human beings.”
Initially, the church leadership had said they would not allow the police to remove the refugees from the sanctuary. Later, the church, with the support of its denominational office, took legal action against the refugee population. Once COVID-19 cases began to be reported in South Africa, tight living conditions became an even greater concern. In late March, once South Africa had implemented a lockdown, the court ruled the refugees must leave the church. The police enforced the order and removed the two groups of refugees to two separate locations.
From his new accommodation during the lockdown, one of the leaders of the refugee community told South Africa’s Mail and Guardian that he still believes the UNHCR must remove them to North America or Europe. The UNHCR has indicated that such an outcome is unlikely and that any decisions to resettle refugees to another country are made on a case-by-case basis rather than as a group.
The most recent UN statistics estimate that there are about 275,000 refugees or asylum seekers in South Africa and about 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. South Africa does not have any refugee camps; refugees are permitted to live wherever they find lodging. Many have come from Central or East Africa and have migrated south to escape war or conflict in their home countries.
While NGOs and the South African government provide some support to refugees, the response is limited. Some politicians and South African traditional leaders have provoked xenophobia by blaming foreigners and refugees for social problems. It is difficult for refugees to find secure housing and remain safe during times of conflict, looting and xenophobia.
In face of this large challenge, resettlement to a third country is a rare solution. In 2020, the UNHCR hoped to resettle about 100,000 refugees before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted these plans. In normal years, fewer than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled to wealthier countries while the rest remain in countries near their homes or embark on risky journeys further abroad. This puts a disproportionate responsibility on countries that already face significant challenges in governance and combating poverty and inequality among their own population.
In North America, border control policies and visa requirements make it very challenging for individuals who want to travel here to claim asylum to do so. Before getting on an airplane to Canada or the U.S., one must have the appropriate visa or travel document, which most refugees cannot obtain. Those who cross the border without permission in Canada are identified by government officials and often detained.
While some churches offer sanctuary to individuals who fear deportation, the most common way that churches in Canada respond to refugees is through sponsoring refugees or assisting newcomers who have claimed refugee status. These assistance programs are important but respond to individuals or families rather than larger groups of a few hundred people.
It is unlikely that a North American church would face the same dilemmas as Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. However, as we consider how to respond to refugees and others needing help, especially during COVID-19, the experiences of churches in countries with higher refugee populations may motivate continued solidarity or additional action. Perhaps better understanding the global challenges of displacement compels us to continue supporting refugees and advocating for justice at home.
Find out more
These resources expand our understanding of sanctuary in other contexts.
A two-part podcast series called Church (Ep 249) & State (Ep 250) is part of the 99% Invisible Podcast. It tells the story of the modern sanctuary movement in the United States. Led by Presbyterian minister John Fife, a movement supporting asylum seekers from Central America blossomed as churches across the USA supported individuals fleeing oppression in their home countries. However, as the podcast reveals, the U.S. government did not agree with the churches’ tactics.
Sites of Sanctuary
Laura Madokoro, a historian at Carleton University in Ottawa, is examining the history of sanctuary in Canada since the 1800s. While the project is ongoing, her website Sites of Sanctuary includes maps that show examples of sanctuary in Canada over the last 200 years, a log of the research process, and links to news articles profiling current and historical examples of sanctuary in Canada.
Ubuntu, Migration & Ministry
Dr. Elina Hankela, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, wrote Ubuntu, Migration and Ministry: Being Human in a Johannesburg Church to describe the ministry at Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Mission. Led by Bishop Paul Verryn, the Johannesburg church had an active ministry to refugees and migrants and opened its doors to newcomers, many of whom lived in the church. However, Hankela finds that there were limits to the church’s welcome as members of the church and the dwellers in the church (migrants or refugees) formed two distinct communities that had a strained relationship with each other.
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