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Christa Kuljian Launches Sanctuary: How an Inner-city Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk with Elinor Sisulu

Christa Kuljian

Exclusive Books in Hyde Park was packed to capacity at Wednesday’s launch of Sanctuary: How an Inner-city Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk by Christa Kuljian. The book tells the story of how the Central Methodist Church in Pritchard Street, central Johannesburg, and its bishop Paul Verryn came to offer refuge to desperate people who had nowhere else to turn.

Elinor Sisulu and Christa Kuljian SanctuaryIn 2010, Kuljian gave the Ruth First Memorial lecture on the refugee crisis at the church. Originally from Boston, USA, she studied at Harvard and Princeton and obtained an MA in creative writing from Wits University.

When the xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg in May 2008, there were more than a thousand migrants living in the church, most of them having fled the political violence and poverty in Zimbabwe. This crush of people living in unsanitary conditions eventually attracted criticism from inside and outside the church, as well as from its neighbouring businesses.

The launch took the form of a conversation between Kuljian and Elinor Sisulu, political activist and member of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Sisulu commended the Jacana Media for taking on this serious and often painful project in these days of rampant escapism. Sisulu met Kuljian at the Central Methodist Church in 2010 and it was not an easy place to be. She told how she was reluctant even to read Kuljian’s manuscript, but found that it combines scholarly research with a compelling narrative. It provides the historical background to the church and tackles the issue of migrancy.

Sisulu asked Kuljian why she chose to write this account without having any connection to Zimbabwe. Kuljian said that the church caught her eye when the xenophobic violence was in the news, but it took two years before she started to write about it. She wanted to understand better what was happening there.

Sisulu was impressed with Kuljian’s handling of the issues of migrancy, xenophobia and the post-apartheid city. She asked how the people living in the church felt about an outsider writing about their circumstances and how she managed to engage with them in the face of much hostility. Kuljian said that it helped at first that she wasn’t a journalist in a hurry to file a superficial story. She spent four months at the church preparing the Ruth First lecture material, and wanted to dig beneath the headlines. She managed to build friendships and relationships with about 25 people from the church, who attended the lecture she gave and found it supportive of their issues. The idea for the book came later and she was able to build on the relationships she had formed.

Kuljian then read two extracts from the book. The first dealt with the upsetting issue of the abuse of children, which was never really resolved and set the church at loggerheads with officials from the Department of Social Development who wanted to move the children to a “place of safety”. However, this was rejected as the Department could not guarantee the safety of the children. The abuse of women is also tackled in a chapter called “Sexual favours for a toothbrush”. On a lighter note, the second reading described the joyous occasion of a wedding between a Zimbabwean and a Burundian. Bishop Paul Verryn said that the union “has brought together the north and the south – a little bit of the dream that Africa could be”.

Sisulu ended the conversation with the comment that the recent events in the Central African Republic have helped South Africans to come to know a bit more about the political and strategic issues in Africa, but there is still little understanding of the many cultures on the continent. Sanctuary illustrates these very well, she said.

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