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​​Paul Verryn: still ministering to Joburg's needy
Paul Verryn, Methodist bishop of JohannesburgThe Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg has found some peace, though no calm, in his busy life. He is a grass roots activist who needs little sleep, packing as much work into his day tending to his flock as he can.

Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg Paul Verryn is a churchman through and through - he takes his Christian values seriously, often working a 21-hour day, helping the city's poor, sick, hungry and homeless.

But he wouldn't change it, describing his life as full and varied, a life he "really enjoys".

The bishop, who has held the position since 1997, is a difficult man to get hold of. He is very much in demand, his phone never stops ringing and his diary is chock-a-block with appointments around his vast parish. In fact, he spends a great deal of his time in his car, travelling from meeting to meeting.

Verryn works at this pace seven days a week, and not surprisingly, this "gives me a good, tired feeling" at the end of each day. Though he says, "I need very little sleep", and he packs as much variety into his day as possible: meetings, teaching (which he describes as recreation), bishop duties, including looking after the spiritual needs of about 60 000 people in his broader jurisdiction. It stretches from Vryberg in the North West through Midrand to Ennerdale, in south Johannesburg.

For starters, he is involved with a programme called Paballo ya Batho, which means "caring for the people". It is an outreach initiative for the inner city homeless. Then there is the Tuesday support group, at which grievances are heard and communicated via the church to the City authorities; the Wednesday night feeding scheme, in which a team of volunteers, including medical students, go out on to the streets, offering food and medical care; and the Thursday help group, where sickly street people are picked up and taken to hospital.

Dr Peter Storey, the former Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg and now a professor at Duke University's school of divinity, worked closely with Verryn in the 1980s and 1990s and describes him as "a grass roots activist" who works "most effectively with individuals in local situations, rather than dealing in generalities or broad principles".

Quietly spoken and informally dressed in charcoal trousers and a pale blue shirt, Verryn describes himself as an energetic, inquisitive, compassionate person who likes "chaos but also likes things to be right".

His office bears testament to his unstoppable work pace. There is one free easy chair fo​r visitors. A couch is piled with papers, another one is almost full (with just enough space for him to sit), two office chairs are equally loaded, and his desk contains neat piles of papers, and several stacks of bibles in one corner.

He smiles wryly, "This is tidy, you should have seen it at Christmas." But, when tested, he is able to say exactly what document is at the bottom of a pile of papers.

The bishop does admit that he "sometimes overdoes it in terms of work". Indeed, not many would match his regimen - 21 hours a day, seven days a week. It takes an enormous amount of energy and motivation to keep that up day after day.

Storey attests to his work ethic, describing Verryn as a workaholic who is "sometimes quite frustrating to work with because he doesn't always take the lives and routines of others into account". "His failures in punctuality are legendary, usually because he has taken on much too much and is running between conflicting meetings while people wait for him."

But, adds Storey, "his people tend to forgive him these lapses because they know he is usually dealing with a multitude of truly worthwhile needs".

As bishop, Verryn has tried to do "creative stuff" in an attempt to transform society, starting with encouraging his congregants to transform themselves by imagining alternatives. It sounds tricky, but it simply entails getting people to see their religious beliefs as something beyond just going to church on Sundays. For example, it could mean becoming involved in a community in which creative things like music, art and poetry happen, or getting women's groups or Aids projects off the ground.

Verryn knew at the age of five that he wanted to devote his life to the church. "It attracted me naturally. I had a wonderful Sunday school teacher and used to get up early on Sundays. This is my natural home, this is where I belong."

Storey says Verryn's ability "to interpret the Scriptures in timely and relevant ways is well-known and admired, making him an excellent preacher".

"Paul's gift is an acute ability to identify the heart of an issue and expose it to the light, ensuring that it is discussed and not dodged," says Storey.

Family is also important, though, and a highlight in his life was the birth of his nieces. He was very close to his sister, now deceased, who was 16 years older than him. There is a history to it: she had struggled for nine years after a miscarriage to have a baby; Verryn's mother struggled to have him too.

His nieces have been like his own children, he says, adding that one of his regrets is that he has not married and had children of his own. Yet he feels it would not have been fair to impose the long hours and busyness of his life on a family. Verryn describes his mother (also deceased) and his sister as "amazing women" and it is one of his great sorrows to have lost them both.

Born in Pretoria 52 years ago, the bishop completed high school at St Stithians in Johannesburg, then went on to study at Unisa while completing his one-year army stint, which he says he hated with a passion. He went on to work as a store man at a panel-beating shop while studying but at 20 made the shift to the church, which he had tried to postpone for as long as possible, to get "life experience".

He moved to Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape to begin his probation, and moved around from there: Butterworth for two years; Grahamstown for three years; Port Elizabeth for five years; East London, where he was ordained in 1978 at the age of 26, which he describes as a highlight of his life ("I had a sense of this piece of the journey being accomplished"); and then on to the West Rand.

From there it was to Soweto, where he was one of the few whites living in the township. It was in Soweto that Verryn faced the toughest challenge of his life - with the political turmoil and confusion of the time taking a personal toll.

It was during this time, says Storey, that "Paul won the hearts of the Soweto community through his identification with their struggle during the worst years of apartheid".

More than most white people Verryn has, says Storey, an appreciation of what is important in the black community and has committed himself to struggling alongside blacks, offering a ministry of empowerment and encouragement.

It was from his Orlando West manse in 1988 that a young activist, Stompie Seipei, was abducted along with four other boys, by a group known as the "Winnie Mandela Football Team" on the instructions of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela - allegedly for their own protection. A few days later Seipei, who had been accused of being an informer, was killed.

Madikizela-Mandela later accused Verryn of sodomising the boys in his care - allegations that were rejected by a Supreme Court judge during her trial and, later, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A decade later, in 1997, Verryn appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing and asked Seipei's mother for forgiveness, saying, "I should have taken far, far more seriously the danger he was in." He then broke down in grief.

"During the abduction drama," says Storey, "it became clear to me just how profoundly he was trusted by the people of Soweto. Nevertheless, that episode cost him dearly and has left deep scars."

But he survived the crucible and still lives in Soweto today, alongside the Jabavu Community Centre.

The tragedy of Seipei has not stopped his humanitarian work: he still offers shelter to orphans and refugees. Some are working, others he feeds, while encouraging them to develop a vegetable garden. "The poor are quite robust despite the dissolving of their sense of worth," he says.

Verryn would like to be remembered as a kind person, as someone who has given people a "sense of the value of themselves", but also as someone who "changed the economic paradigm". By that he means that the sharing of resources is not right yet, that there should be a stronger focus on the poorest of the poor. "We need to begin to start making the shift, and have an emphasis on what Christ did.

"We need to see God in a different way - not as an old, grumpy, sour judge waiting to catch people out. God would surprise most of us - the sweep of his grace is much bigger than this."

Although still far from retirement, he says once he gets there he would like to give more time to his friends, read more, see more movies. It is hard, however, to imagine such a driven man chilling out to this degree.​
​​Paul Verryn: still ministering to Joburg's needy