Entertaining the angels

By Wendy Mothata

Faith and the law live side by side in the fast-beating heart of Johannesburg. On the one side is the South Gauteng High Court, with its olive-green dome and pillars made of stone. Just across from it, separated by a busy pedestrian arcade, is a church of brick and glass, with a slender metal cross on its façade.

This is the Central Methodist Church in Pritchard Street, and over the years it has stood tall as a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, and a place of sanctuary for the poor and dispossessed from across the African continent.

It was just after the 08:00 AM French service. The city is still sleepy eyed, when the 10; 00 AM English service commences. The only noise you can hear is that of the holy rhythm from the church. This is a place where many assimilate physically and spiritually.

HIGH COURT PRECINCT: Law situated side by side with the church

It’s Sunday morning at the Central Methodist church. The congregation is singing, for a moment you would swear that they are auditioning for competitions. The church has three choirs, one sitting in front referred to as Music Ministry wearing a black and white uniform. What was fascinating is that there was a white man among the choir who was singing Xhosa hymns without referring to the hymn book like how many were doing.

The other two choirs were seated on the right and left side of the church, ground floor, sparkling the church with the red and white uniforms they were wearing. During the service they used piano and drums to supplement the rhythm of the praise band. They were singing traditional hymns more than contemporary songs.

One of the Xhosa hymns they sang was “Xa ndi wela uMfula iJordane, “Ndazi lahla izono zam ndodana yam edukileyo, buyela kimi ekhaya.” (Every time I cross the river of Jordan, I am cleansed of my sins, my long lost son, Come back home to me.)

The most interesting thing is that you won’t feel left out if you don’t know the song. There are lyrics on the projector, translated in English, because the church is multicultural.

The interior of the Methodist worship space is an auditorium shaped, which is in the front centre and gives the congregation full view of the actions happening in the pulpit.  The roof is wider with lights. A red and white candle was lit and put on top of a square table. It was stuffy and hot.

HOLY PLACE: The Central Methodist Church as a home for many refugees.

HOLY BOOK: The Holy Bible is used at the church by young and old people.

The congregation stood up, as they welcome Reverend Ndumiso Ngombo to the pulpit, dressed in a white Cassack. He was using English and a bit of Xhosa when he was preaching.

He read the scripture of Luke 15:20 “So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

“The bible is clear that we should welcome strangers in our home, eat and drink with them. We should love our neighbours as we love ourselves, says Ngombo. Furthermore he quoted Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Third row from the right side there was a chubby man with black shinny shoes, blue denim jeans and blue shirt. Singing with a smile on his face, seating right next to his two little daughters who were playing with blonde dolls.  He pulls out a chair outside church to take Wits Vuvuzela through his hardships.

WATCH: The Central Methodist Church caters for homeless people from across the continent.
The journey of William Kandowe

This is William Kandowe (right), (44), a refugee from Zimbabwe who came to Jo’burg in 2007 in a quest for a better life. He is one of the foreigners who found themselves sleeping jobless on the streets of Jo’burg.  “I have never dreamt of coming to South Africa,” said Kandowe, a member of the Methodist church.

Kandowe was trained as a teacher in Zimbabwe and he left his country because of the political situation. “It was difficult at home during that time, we would work for months without being paid,” Kandowe said.

One night when Kandowe was sleeping three men chased him away from where he was sleeping. They were claiming ownership of the spot. “They were talking to me in Zulu and I couldn’t understand what they were saying, that’s where I got into a fight with them. They wanted to take away everything that I was having with me including my certificates.  I had to fight with them and I managed to escape,” he says with a low tone.

Kandowe said that what shocked him the most was that someone who was driving a truck parked for few minutes watching them fighting, “I was thinking he will get out of the car and help out because that’s how we do things at home. You can’t just leave two people fighting, you have to intervene to end the fight.” However that was not the only time Kandowe gets into a fight, he was involved in another one where people wanted to attack him.

“They were talking to me in Zulu and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. That’s where I got into a fight with them. They wanted to take away everything that I was having with me, including my certificates. I had to fight with them and I managed to escape,” he says.


After all the struggles of sleeping on the streets,  a 130-year-old church that is as old as Johannesburg, became a place of safety and haven for many foreigners like Kandowe and Sam Mogambe in the city of Joburg.

The Central Methodist Church is affectionately known to welcome strangers and creating a home for immigrants during and after the terrible xenophobic attacks that took place in 2008. Many people from African countries became victims of violence, this includes children  Mogambe, 46, from Uganda, came to South Africa in 2002. He left his country because of political issues.

FEEDING SCHEME: The map illustrates some of the stops where the volunteers give homeless people food.

EDUCATING THE COMMUNITY: Illustrations of some of the project within the Methodist Church.

Not only was the church a place of safety it became a place of learning where many people took classes of local languages and computer. This programme did not only accommodate homeless people but also the Joburg community, which paints a picture of how the church was assimilating in the people.

Mogambe was one of the people who used to attend Zulu classes. He said that he was mugged more than four times by the people who speaks Zulu. Mogambe explained that what happened to him made him more eager to know the language. “This experience’s forced me to attend Zulu classes which were offered at Methodist church and I thought knowing the language will make me have a sense of belonging towards the community,” says Mogambe.

Imagine a country where you are having both men and women living in the street. The Methodist came in a way of trying to bridge the gap between languages, bringing mission together learn and do skills together. Although there will be challenges for those who are affected by this huge

My point is clearly not that learning isiZulu is wrong, but so far it reflects assimilation into minority. One of the major challenges that Kandowe struggled with, was learning local languages like Xhosa and Zulu.” At times people may even gossip about you” he laughs loudly.

“Few days after my stay at church, there then Bishop Paul Verryn asked to see all trained teachers. In a conversation with Verryn, I was asked what skills can I bring to the church and I said I can teach computer, form that day Verryn took me to his home in Soweto, in one of the back rooms, I ate and slept nicely there,” says Kandowe.

Today the school has more than 400 leaners mostly are foreigners only a few are South Africans. Furthermore some of this kids do not have families and they are staying in one of the Methodist church in Soweto where they travel daily using train.

What will leave your eyebrows raised is that the very same foreigner is the teacher of isiZulu at school. “I teach Zulu here at school and all the kids have been doing well including foreign kids,” Kandowe says.  The evidence is stuck on the wall and indeed the school has 100% pass rate from 2014 in isiZulu.

Kandowe said that Joburg is a city where you meet all types of people, a place where dreams come true for many. “But home is where my heart is, no matter how rich or poor one can be, home is the best. It is where you are connected to your grassroots and all memories of childhood. Obvious you will always be homesick but you are in a struggle, you have to fight and win the war,” says Kandowe.


SERVING POINT: Homeless people gather at some spots where the volunteers will come and provide food.

Mogambe acknowledged that the church helped him with the basics of language and opportunity to get a job. He is now the co-ordinator of Paballo ya Batho which means caring for people. An organisation that was established in the Methodist Church to help homeless people with food, clothes and blankets from the donors.

Right in the kitchen where she was preparing food, there was one toothless woman with a knee injury. From the Free State province, she does not remember when she came to Joburg. She was homeless and helped by one of the members of the Methodist church.

Leah van Vore (54) said that it was difficult to stay on the streets especially if you don’t have food and clothes. “Today I’m thankful to Methodist for not shutting doors for us, but rather accommodated us even though we had our own beliefs,” said Van Vore.

She now has her own place, staying with her daughter and grand-daughter, and working for Paballo ya Batho organisation, cooking for homeless people. One would say what Van Vore and two foreigners are practising is ubuntu (I am what I am because of who we all are).  They are trying to give back, as they were once given.

IN THE KITCHEN: One of the volunteers preparing food for homeless people.

LUNCHEON: Homeless people go to the Methodist Church every Wednesday to eat lunch.

Reverend Mawuzole Mlombi (33), is in charge of the Methodist Church in Braamfontein. He walked in his office together with his wife, both wearing black shoes and red shirts. “The mandate of the church is to go to the community and teach the gospel,” says Mlombi.

Mlombi said that having a church in the inner city is very challenging, “It’s a tough one, and the competition is too much.”

“Johannesburg needs many churches and churches needs to find a way to keep the youth in the house of the Lord so that they can enjoy and don’t feel the pressure of going back to the world,” Mlombi says.

However Mlombi made it clear that he does not have a problem with the foreigners, “I have a very good friendship with some of the foreigners, outside and inside church.”

Towards the end of the service, the Church young women ushers bring small glasses with red wine and pieces of bread put in a tray to the pulpit. The pastor kneels and prays before taking part. It’s a Holy Communion. The pastor opens and stretch his arms as he calls for sharing of bread and drinking of wine. “Bread represent Christ’s body and wine represents the blood of Christ. Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you. Come,” says Ngombo.