In Bishop Paul We Trust


This is part one of a three part assignment for Médecins Sans Frontières on the migration of refugees from impoverished Zimbabwe into South Africa. Photos Copyright ©2009 Austin Andrews / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Not to be reprinted or reproduced without permission.


There are over three million Zimbabwean refugees living in South Africa, a number that rivals the oft-publicised flight of Mexicans to California, with 6000 more entering illegally through its porous border every day. Life back home has become unbearable for most, and a collapsed economy and dire humanitarian conditions have driven many to either starvation or prison. A cholera epidemic has ravaged the cities and farms, with 87000 infected and 4000 already dead. And a messy power-sharing battle between the two main political parties has the country in a dead grip, with UN officials saying the number of asylum seekers is higher than ever.

Under the leadership of Bishop Paul Verryn, the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg has become a place of refuge for Zimbabweans seeking a new life in South Africa. Some 5000 line up here every evening for a place to stay safe from the xenophobic violence that has dogged Johannesburg’s townships, spilling out onto the pavement of neighbouring Small Street when all the floor space inside the church is gone.

Lately the situation has been worsening and the role of the church has become more important than ever. On Tuesday, the Home Affairs department of the South African government announced that it was closing the “showgrounds”, an informal refugee-processing facility at the border town of Musina four hours north. Transportation was arranged within days for the 5000 asylum seekers living on the small plot of scrubland, with most of them destined for Johannesburg, and most of them destined for Bishop Paul’s church.

This is the story of a Friday night in the Central Methodist Church.


Street food vendors socialise outside the church over suppertime. 5:45pm.

Mash and chicken bits.

Cross and crowds.

Latecomers to the weekly refugee meeting file into the Main Sanctuary Hall.

Refugee meeting in the House of God.

Bishop Paul Verryn opens the meeting with news of the eviction in Musina, and that buses carrying the first 1000 refugees are expected at the church later in the evening. More are due to arrive later in the week.

Seven rows.

A captive congregation.

As the Friday meeting wore on, text message reports began coming in with the news that Morgan Tsvrangirai, Zimbabwe’s elected leader and the only opposition voice against longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, was being rushed to hospital following a car crash that killed his wife. The Bishop led a heartfelt prayer for Mr. Tsvrangirai and the people of Zimbabwe.



Comfort under the cross.

Meeting minutes.

Talk and thought.

Refugees sleep off to the sidelines.

With the meeting underway inside, droves of newcomers begin arriving to the front doors of the church.

Standing room only.


Closing notes, 9:30pm.

Meeting adjourned, refugees flood the corridor outside the hall to stake out a space to sleep.

Names remembered.

Third floor sleepers.

Pew positions.


A needle and thread.

Shirt slogans.

Feet in a row.

A church volunteer establishes ground rules in the boy’s dorm.

Contradicting eyelines.

Fingernail inspection.

Boys empty a closetful of blankets and bedding as they get ready for lights out.

Floor space.

Traffic in the stairwell as dishes are brought down to the washroom for rinsing.

Sleep queue outside elevators.

Covert conversation. 11:00pm.


Part two, a look inside an MSF medical clinic operating at the Central Methodist Church, will be posted here on Wednesday.



Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *