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Biography: Paul Verryn

- By Wits University

Bishop Paul Verryn is described in the recent Issues of Faith DVD entitled One and Undivided: the Paul Verryn Story as “an anti-apartheid activist, champion of the poor and warrior against social injustice”. He is particularly renowned for sheltering destitute refugees in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, and for his fearless defence of their rights. 

Verryn was born in Pretoria on 26 February 1952 and attended St Stithian’s College. He was drafted into compulsory military service in 1970, an experience that exposed him to the harsh realities of the apartheid state. He began his theological studies while in the army and went on to complete a Bachelor of Divinity in 1976 at Rhodes University. 

His experiences in the Eastern Cape further radicalised his anti-apartheid stance, particularly when he served in a parish in Port Elizabeth, where he worked closely with the political activist Molly Blackburn. He made frequent visits into the townships, sheltered activists fleeing from the security police, and launched the Port Elizabeth branch of the Detainees Parents Support Committee (DPSC) in the early 1980s. 

In 1984 Verryn was stationed in the Krugersdorp Circuit and in December 1987, under the direction of Bishop Peter Storey, he moved to the mission house of the Methodist Church in Orlando West, Soweto and was the first white Methodist minister to live in Soweto. His work with the DPSC and with young detainees and political prisoners continued, and he sheltered a number of young activists. 

In 1997 Verryn was appointed Bishop of the Central District, Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Through his commitment to the victimised, marginalised and dispossessed, he turned the premises of the Central Methodist Church into a shelter for (mainly) Zimbabwean refugees. 

Verryn played an important role in mediating and caring during the xenophobic violence of May 2008, and continued to shelter increasing numbers of refugees. The number of Zimbabwean refugees increased dramatically in March 2009 after the government closed the refugee reception camp in Musina. Verryn estimated 2000 were sleeping in the church and more than 2000 outside. 

Despite a court order to remove the refugees, supported by the local government MEC, Verryn stood firm in his defence of the rights of deeply traumatised people, stating in an affidavit: 

“These problems are the direct result of the state’s failure to observe its national and international obligations to provide shelter for homeless refugees, asylum seekers and those aspiring to such status.” 

It was largely through his interventions that the refugees won an indefinite reprieve from the courts, and that local government is now engaged in a more constructive and sympathetic process to resolve the crisis of housing and caring for the dispossessed and destitute. 

Throughout his ministry, Verryn has shown exceptional courage and caring for the marginalised in society. His faith is profoundly lived.