Paul Verryn: man of the people

by Reports by Katlego Moeng

Bishop Paul Verryn gives holy communion at Joburg Central Methodist ChurchPAUL Verryn is a member of the dying breed of activist priests. A church minister since he was 21, Verryn says all he ever wanted was to fight for – and with – the poor.

In an interview just before his suspension by the Methodist Church, this social activist spoke of his history and inspiration.

“My first social conscientising was at a very young age with our helper, Julie Nkadimeng. She always shared stories of how apartheid affected her family.

“What I took from her was that it was a system that alienated black people. She took a bet with me that I would forget what she taught me and I vowed to never forget.”

The embattled 58-year-old Pretoria- born clergyman admits that he “can be rude and my tongue can be cutting”.

He is no stranger to being at odds with the powers that be.

His latest battle with his own church led to his suspension on January 18. His disciplinary hearing, originally scheduled for February 1, has been postponed indefinitely.

Verryn is charged with instituting legal proceedings – without church authority – for the appointment of a curator to safeguard the interests of unaccompanied minors living at the church in the Johannesburg CBD – and of making media statements after being instructed not to do so.

He would not be drawn into commenting on his legal woes but said: “I will find another way of working with the poor, with or without the church. They have become my companions.”

The church is home to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees. While there have been attempts to remove them, nothing has happened.

This week those we approached for comment were reluctant to say much about Verryn’s battles for fear of getting him into more trouble.

Verryn said his political awakening came in 1973 when he moved to Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, as a junior minister. He publicly took a stand against apartheid by associating with the ANC and other liberation movements.

He drew inspiration from other activist clergymen such as Beyers Naudé, Peter Storey and Mvume Dandala, who advocated for social justice.

“The nature of my work has not allowed me to marry and have a family as the church allows. I think the Catholic doctrine of celibacy is more sensible (but) who knows when things will change.”

Verryn was born to a German-Irish mother and a Dutch-French father. They separated when he was still young. “My father was a red-hot Jan Smuts supporter. He went to war (Second World War). My mother was a real Nazi. That always caused tension.”

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