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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The New Year brings an uncertain future for more than 500 people who are being evicted from the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, which has been a haven for refugees and homeless for the past 14 years.
Messages of thanks and praise are scrawled onto the church's walls, tributes to Bishop Paul Verryn who opened the house of worship to the needy.
In one of Johannesburg's grittiest blocks, the Methodist church offered shelter to those who fled neighboring Zimbabwe and other troubled African countries, as well as South Africa's own homeless. Verryn believes the church has the responsibility to be more than a place of worship and to help those new to the city integrate into an unforgiving urban environment.
Verryn's policy was controversial as the church became a teeming dormitory.
"As many problems as there are, there are just as many of the most incredible people with the most spectacular potential," says Verryn of those who pass through the church's front door every day. "It is an exposure into a different way of being church."
In 2000, the church began to take in a few dozen people who were too vulnerable to live on the street and soon attracted undocumented migrants, especially from Burundi, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
In 2008 violent xenophobic attacks against African immigrants in South Africa saw the numbers of refugees in the church swell to more than 3,000 seeking safety.
That number dwindled to 568, as of Christmas Day, said Verryn, and the five-story resembled an indoor slum. In one dimly-lit room, sheets and cloth created partitions between families.
"I think the conditions that people are living in in this place are not really acceptable," said Verryn. "It's one step better than the street."
The refugees shared about a dozen toilets and cooked near any electric outlet they could find. Children collected water in recycled soda bottles and stored it near their family's mattresses. The basement, which houses the church's child care center, is flooded and the smell of stale water and a rotting carpet wafts up.
The church operates a medical clinic, school, adult training workshops, fitness classes and other outreach programs that have assisted the estimated 30,000 people who found refuge in the church over the years, said Verryn. Church officials say they can no longer afford the wear and tear on the building or the water and electricity bills incurred by the refugees.
"In many respects some people think that this is the cathedral of Methodism in Johannesburg," said Verryn, whose tenure at the church ended on Dec. 31, which is when the refugees are expected to be out of the building.
Verryn, who has a history of intervening in political struggles since South Africa's apartheid days when he hid activists in his own home, says he understands that his decision to house immigrants is polarizing. He has been transferred to Soweto, more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from central Johannesburg, where he is trying to set up alternative accommodation in a community center. He hopes that some of the refugees will choose to follow him. In his office on the church's fourth floor, Verryn sat in a worn armchair, surrounded by stacks of identity documents and immigration applications as he tried to secure last-minute solutions for his congregants.
Evans and Samuel, two undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants who sleep on mattresses on the top floor, say they would rather live under the Nelson Mandela Bridge nearby in the inner-city.
"Soweto is far and I'm still afraid of xenophobia," says Evans, who came to Johannesburg as a teenager.
Samuel says his prospects are better in the inner-city where he is able to find part-time work as a graphic designer: "You find yourself in places like this not because you are undisciplined but because you don't have papers."
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