• How did the idea for the book come about?
In May 2008, events around the xenophobic violence shocked many of us. Central Methodist Church was in the headlines at the time, which is when I first thought that I would like to write something about CMC.
b. When did you start, and how long was the process from idea to finished book?
It took two years for me to start working on the idea of writing something about CMC. It was in April 2010 when I received the Ruth First Fellowship from Wits Journalism that I moved forward with my idea. I then started to research and write a long article about CMC that would form the text of the Ruth First Memorial Lecture that I gave in August 2010.
It turns out that two people from Jacana Media were in the audience of the lecture. Some months later, they asked if I would be interested in expanding the lecture into a book. My answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’ I continued to work on the book until it went to the printer in the middle of February 2013. So from beginning my research until the finished product, it took me three years.
• How did the people inside the church itself feel about someone from the outside coming inside to write about them? Did you experience any challenges in this regard?
There were large numbers of journalists, local and international, that visited CMC over the years and interviewed residents. When I first visited CMC in April 2010, I was fortunate that I did not have a short deadline. I was able to spend time there over several months before writing the Ruth First Lecture. I made it clear to people what I was working on, and only interviewed people who were interested in working with me on the project.
About twenty residents from CMC attended the Ruth First Lecture and were encouraged by what I had to say about CMC. I believe that these two factors – 1) having a longer period of time to spend on the project, and 2) sharing my work with people prior to embarking on the book – helped build trust between myself and CMC residents. When I shared the idea of working on a book, many people thought that it was a good idea.
I continued to get to know people at CMC over a long period of time. When I finished the draft manuscript, I read quotes and stories, which people had shared with me, back to them so that we could agree that all was in order, or so that I could make necessary changes and corrections. This process meant that people offered input and were not shocked to see the content of the final product. It was important to me that people found the process respectful.
d. How did you go about gathering the various facts for the book together, given the potentially disruptive working scenario in the church?
I did a great deal of research inside and outside of CMC. My research included reading newspaper articles and research papers, face to face interviews, phone interviews, attending meetings and workshops, and spending time at Central Methodist just hanging around and talking to people. For the interviews inside CMC, I would try to set aside quiet time and space for a conversation but that wasn’t always possible.
• What challenges did you have to deal with in writing the entire narrative?
One of the big challenges was finding the best structure for the entire narrative. At first, I wasn’t sure how the book should begin. I had chapters that covered current events, as well as chapters that covered historic events. I put together several different outlines. In late February 2012, I put different blocks of coloured paper, representing different chapters, up on my wall, deciding which order would work best. I started in the present, went back in time to the historic chapters and then worked my way back to the present again.
Many of the events I was writing about happened before I arrived on the scene so it was a challenge to recreate events. After all of my research and interviews, I wanted to write about events in a way that would bring them to life. That was a challenge.
When I put all the chapters together in one document, I realized that I had written the entire book in the present tense and I decided to change it to the past tense.
I also struggled with the issue of how often to write in the first person and when to write in the third person. I tended to shy away from writing in the first person, but realized that it was necessary in certain parts of the book for me to share my personal experience.
f. What was the biggest revelation for you in writing the book?
When I began my research, I did not expect to find that events within Central Methodist Church mirrored many of the challenges facing the city of Johannesburg as a whole from its birth in 1886 through to the present.
At first I was writing about the crisis at Central Methodist in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Then I found myself writing about the history of Central Methodist from its founding in 1886 through to the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Then I realized that Central Methodist was a microcosm of Johannesburg over time, pre-apartheid, during apartheid and post-apartheid. I found it amazing to chart developments in the City by looking at events at CMC.
g. Whom amongst the dozens of individuals you came across during the process, would you say was most interesting or remarkable, and why?
‘Sanctuary’ is not a full biography of any one person. It is a book about the lives of many people that came together in one place. It is that place that I found most interesting and remarkable.
However, I must say that it is the stories of individuals in the book that brings it to life. From Lindiwe Myeza in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to Cleo Buthelezi in the 2000s. From Reverend Peter Storey to Reverend Mvume Dandala to Reverend Paul Verryn. From Leothere Nininahazwe of Burundi and Monica Chiwetu of Zimbabwe and many, many more.
h. What are your thoughts on the role of non-governmental organizations such as the Methodist Church in advocating on behalf of migrant communities in South Africa?
Many non-governmental organisations (not only Central Methodist) have worked with the migrant community in South Africa. They have played a very important role. Some have helped with access to basic services. Others have offered advice on documentation, and advocated for people’s legal rights under South Africa’s constitution.
i. What was the biggest highlight for you in the entire period writing the book?
One of the biggest thrills for me was seeing the book back from the printer. I remember receiving the phone call from my publisher, Jacana Media, saying that they had an advance copy of ‘Sanctuary’ for me. I was so nervous. It was so overwhelming and emotional to see all that work come together in book form and to hold it in my hands for the first time.
j. Do you see a situation in future where the Central Methodist Church Pritchard Street church returns to being an ordinary church again?
Central Methodist has never been an ‘ordinary’ church so it is unlikely that it will become ‘ordinary’ in the future. On the other hand, Central Methodist continues to hold Sunday services for its congregation every week. So in that sense, it continues as an ‘ordinary’ church.
Please find more information on Sanctuary – How An Inner-City Church Spilled Onto A Side-walk at – http://www.sanctuary-book.co.za/