“And they all ate and were satisfied.”
As we drew close to the church building, we noticed a structure in very ill repair. Windows were broken, doors unable to close properly, large stains adorned rugs and ceilings, and the arresting smell of strong body odor pierced our senses. We walked through the hallway toward the main worship space.
As we approached the entrance to a large sanctuary, we saw the stern, uninviting faces of some church ladies sporting Sunday uniforms. Their disapproving severity juxtaposed against the radiant smiles of poorly-clad children speaking in Shona (one of the official languages of Zimbabwe) as they ran up and down the church hallways playing some version of hide-and-seek.
My son and I found ourselves in this Johannesburg, South Africa, church hallway at the invitation of Dr. Stephan DeBeer, Director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria, and Leadership Foundations Senior Associate for the African Continent. We were in country for the Biennial Consultation on Urban Ministry.
And, before the event started, Stephan showed us around Pretoria and then Johannesburg, the capitol city about an hour’s drive away. I never tire of spending time with people who engage in a perpetual love affair with the cities where they live and serve.
We spent hours driving around Johannesburg learning from our masterful guide. Then, Stephan pulled his car over to the side of the road. He said only that he wanted us to see something unique. We walked across the street toward the large three-story Central Methodist Church.
Not until we were standing in the church hallway with stained carpets, stern faces, and raucous Shona-speaking kids, did Stephan began to tell us the story of where we were. When xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa in May 2008, thousands of resident aliens trying to survive on the streets of Johannesburg had nowhere to turn. In the midst of spiraling controversy, the church rector, Bishop Paul Verryn, decided if the church in the city was anything, it needed to be an inviting refuge for people who had nowhere else to go.
So he opened up the church as home to thousands of migrants, most of whom had fled across the Zimbabwe border in search of a life beyond poverty and political oppression. They began to occupy every inch of the church building, turning classrooms into dorms and closets into changing rooms. When we visited, about 1,000 refugees lived and gathered at the church every night to worship and take communion. At one time, we were told the numbers had reached nearly 3,000 refugees seeking shelter there.
Several days after our visit, at the conclusion of the consultation on urban ministry, all attendees were invited to a communion service presided by none other than Bishop Paul Verryn. After singing African worship and praise music in four different languages, accompanied by plenty of dancing in the aisles, we shared Eucharist.
The elements had been served. The communion service was complete, but there still remained a feast on the table in front of us. As he was about to give a closing prayer, a smile exploded on Bishop Verryn’s face. He took a deep breath. “It seems as if there is an overabundance of God’s goodness lying before us this evening. The sacrament is complete but before us lies an invitation to a party. Can the ushers come back up please and distribute the rest of what lies on this table?”
As the ushers did just that, the praise band erupted into music of celebration and joy. Everyone took handfuls of bread and extra cups of juice. A party of feasting on God’s superabundant goodness was truly underway.
Many authors have debunked the myth of scarcity that Bishop Verryn confronted in Johannesburg and Jesus confronted in our text this week amidst 5,000 hungry men (“besides women and children”). Mary Jo Leddy writes:
“The economics of God’s love is not based on a law of scarcity but rather rooted in the mystery of superabundance. The personal or political decision to declare that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH is the beginning of social cruelty, war, and violence on a petty or vast scale. On the other hand, the choice to affirm that THERE IS ENOUGH FOR ALL is the beginning of social community, peace and justice. The option to assume that THERE IS ENOUGH frees the imagination to think of new political and economic possibilities.”
In the shape of the verbs of Eucharist evidenced by what Jesus does with the 5 loaves and the two fish (Chose, Blessed, Broke and Gave), we see Jesus’s fidelity to the “mystery of superabundance” moving humanity from the bondage of fear-based scarcity to the freedom of God’s love-based abundance.
Whether standing in a stained church hallway while disapproving congregants watch immigrant children play in ragged clothes, or starving in a “desolate place” in a crowd of well over 5,000 others, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus there is enough bread and fish for all, with plenty of left-over baskets. Can you see?
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative