This is messy, this is hard work, this is The Gospel

World Development & Relief work closely with Christian Aid Ireland, co-funding two development partners. One of these is Church Land Programme in South Africa. In November 2018, Rev. Paul Maxwell visited this partner with a group from Christian Aid. Here Paul reflects on his visit and what we can learn from our friends in South Africa. 

Last autumn I had the privilege of travelling to South Africa with Christian Aid to represent the Methodist Church in Ireland and World Development and Relief. Christian Aid wished to take a small group of emerging church leaders from the UK and Ireland to visit one of the projects they partner in South Africa. 

On Saturday 3rd November the Ven. Martin Gorrick, Archdeacon of Oxford, Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Loudon, Director of Social Justice in the Diocese of Liverpool and myself met in Heathrow Airport along with three staff members from Christian Aid to began our journey to South Africa. 

In South Africa, (minus my luggage for 36 hours!) we were met and hosted by Graham Philpott, Director of Church Land Programme (CLP). CLP are based in the city of Pietermaritzburg, an hour north of Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. During our seven, non-stop, days we travelled around Pietermaritzburg and Durban seeing the work that CLP are involved in and meeting various groups and organisations who work alongside CLP. Our trip included a welcome and briefing about CLP, a tour of Pietermaritzburg, discussions with Abahlali leadership at their offices, visits to two settlements to discuss in-situ upgrading and women's issues, a reflection session with Bishop Rubin Phillips in one of the settlements, a sleep over in another settlement, attending a conference and discussion with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, watching a Padkos documentary about land and extractives, discussion with Paulo Freire Institute about methodology, debrief sessions with CLP staff, a visit to a game reserve and a Sunday service at a local Pentecostal church.

For a number of years both Christian Aid and World Development & Relief have been journeying with and supporting CLP. In 2018, WDR’s service material focused on the story of David Ntseng, programme manager at CLP and some of the communities that they work with.  

A personal highlight for me was the day and a half spent in Durban with Abahlali baseMjondolo. Abahlaliis a movement of shack-dwellers and other impoverished people in South Africa. It is the largest popular movement outside of party politics and trade unions in South Africa but has its strongest base in Durban. It has over 55,000 members.  

Due to its opposition of evictions and their stances on land rights, Abahlali finds itself in constant conflict with those in authorities. During our time with Abahlaliwe heard many harrowing stories from people who live in various settlements around Durban. People told us of multiple evictions, arson attacks and physical assaults. One lady shared how her husband had been shot eight times and has been left permanently disabled. 

Cato Manor

Cato Manor

During our time with Abahlali, we were taken to Cato Manor, a settlement, built in 2016 and made up of roughly 300 homes. Here, we were told of how the authorities regularly cut off the electricity and water supply (2-3 times a week) and how they regularly face attempted demolishing of their homes from the wider community and the authorities. 

With the help of Abahlali and CLP, the settlement in Cato Manor has built a community hall which was officially opened in December after our visit. We were taken into this hall and met with many of the local people. One of the community leaders told us how the people in power and the people living around them see them as criminals and no-bodies. He said to us “However, your visit gives us dignity. The fact that you have come to us from the UK and Ireland means so much to us.” A lady from the community shared with us of a time when she came home to find her house being demolished. She started to take pictures with her phone to use as evidence and was shot in the eye. 

Hearing these stories and seeing the conditions the people were living in filled me with a great sadness and anger. As I listened to people speak about the lack of involvement in their struggle by the church I found myself asking why was the church not doing more for these people.

I was also beginning to feel quite scared for the next stage of our trip. From Cato Manor we were taken on a 30 minute drive to a different part of Durban to another settlement in Briardene. 



This settlement was much bigger and more densely populated that the one we had just come from. We were met by the community leaders who provided us with a beautiful dinner and showed us to our accommodation for the night. I was sharing a room with one of the Christian Aid staff, Ven. Martin Gorrick and Thapelo Mohapi, General Secretary of Abahlali, whose home this was. Thapelo’s wife, who was pregnant with triplets and her sister moved out for the night to accommodate us. 

The front door of my accomodation

The front door of my accomodation

Having heard about the violence and intimidation earlier in the day I really did not know what to expect in Briardene. I certainly did not expect to be spending my evening playing pool, watching Liverpool lose in the Champions League on the TV, socialising with the locals and dancing to some local music. It was an incredible evening of fun and fellowship. Thankfully there are no videos! The whole time I was in Briardene I never felt like an outsider. I was welcomed and accepted into the community. In fact, the way the people treated me made me feel like I had always been there. 

However, I was keenly aware that right beside us were middle-class housing surrounded by security fences and people who did not want these people there. I was also reflecting on the questions I had been asking around the lack of involvement from the local church when I suddenly found myself thinking about my manse in Carlow. Right beside us there is an empty field. During the summer a couple of homeless people put up two tents and I suddenly thought to myself how would I feel if that field beside me suddenly filled up with tents and people living in them? Instantaneously my anger at the local church turned to guilt. 

One question that I have not been able to stop thinking about since coming home has been this: If Christian Aid was to bring a group of church leaders from South Africa to Ireland where are the places where people might say, “The church in Ireland does not care about us”? 

There is certainly great need where the church can, and sometimes does, intervene. My mind goes towards the 1,728 families who in November 2018 were accessing emergency accommodation in Ireland including 3,811 children,[1]the 450 families in Carlow who reported domestic violence to Carlow Women’s Aid in 2018 and, the families who received just over 900 food parcels from The Food Pantry in Carlow. My own church, Carlow Methodist, has been involved in some of these responses but there is a challenge to every local church to see the need and to respond in a real way.

It is easy to travel across the world and see injustice, to stand in solidarity and speak out but it is much harder for us to do so on our own door step. This is messy, this is hard work, this is the Gospel and as we seek to live out our calling as followers of Christ there is an awful lot we can learn from Graham Philpott and Church Land Programme.