When the church cares more about social justice than tithes

All Saints Cathedral was briefly a hotbed of social justice activism

In Summary

• A church's harbouring of refugees in S Africa reminiscent of Kenyan counterpart

Shops were looted in the violence in Johannesburg
Shops were looted in the violence in Johannesburg
Image: AFP

I've been experiencing a sense of déjà vu the last four months here in Cape Town. 

I don't know how much of the story, if any, has been reported in Kenya, but since November, some 400 refugees (other figures claim 1,000, but that's ridiculous) have been camping in one of this city's most famous churches. 


The refugees were invited into the church, Central Methodist Mission, by the minister in charge, the Rev Alan Storey. 


The invitation was meant to give the refugees temporary sanctuary after they were thrown out of the lobby of the nearby office block that is home to the UNHCR. They had gone there to escape what they said was xenophobic harassment from their South African neighbours in and around Cape Town's informal settlements or townships.

When their sit-in at the UNHCR became loud and a nuisance to other occupants of the building, police were called in to disband the refugees, who were demanding resettlement in a third country — Canada kept coming up as the preferred destination, even though there was no offer — or at worst to be returned to their country of origin.

That for many this last option was even a suggestion, especially considering many claimed to have fled their homes in Burundi, the DR Congo, Somalia and Bangladesh in fear of their lives, made me think about how bad things must have been for them here.

When you'd rather face certain death or torture or imprisonment back home, you must be in hell.

Anyway, the Methodist Mission in Cape Town's iconic Greenmarket Square has had a history since the 1980s and has been the venue for protests and other community events.

According to a history of the church published on its website, “In 1994, the church hosted the launch of the Gun-Free South Africa campaign, where many children handed in their toy guns as a sign of their commitment to the campaign.

“CMM also hosted the World Methodist Council Peace Award Ceremony for Nelson Mandela in September 2000. All of this has happened as a result of the church’s commitment to seek to be relevant to the issues of the day.” 


In inviting the refugees in and giving them shelter, the church was fulfilling the rules about loving your neighbour as yourself. 

Few if any of the refugees were congregants or even methodists or people who pay a tithe or whose attendance boosts the church leaders in social circles.  

This is where my sense of déjà vu came in. It took me back to the early 1990s in Nairobi, when that one-time pillar of the establishment, All Saints Cathedral, was briefly a hotbed of social justice activism. 

That was when 53 women whose sons and or husbands had been jailed by the Kanu government were given sanctuary in the church to save them from the teargas of the GSU.

I doubt if there are many activist churches or church leaders left today. Most just want your money without caring whether it is clean or covered in blood, and to tell women what to wear. Am I wrong?