“My sermons are not always comforting. I ask questions and refuse to use militaristic or male power language. I’m also quite particular about the hymns we sing,” says Reverend Lauren Matthew of the Manning Road Methodist Church in Durban. She makes no apology for the “hard edge” to many of her recent sermons.
Growing up in Mobeni Heights in Chatsworth, she started preaching at the age of 18 before she studied theology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her paternal grandparents were devout Methodists and her maternal grandparents were Catholic – “but their focus was more on justice than rosaries”.
Strongly influenced by the pro-poor Peruvian liberation theologian Rev Gustavo Gutiérrez, she believes that the crucifixion of Christ marked the point where temples for the wealthy were opened to everyone.
But as much as she believes that God is on the side of impoverished people, Matthew suggests that Christianity also emphasises respect for all forms of life and symbiotic relationships with the natural world rather than human-centred dominance.
We don’t respect life
“We are annihilating nature to legitimise our lifestyles, and we behave as if it is something we own,” she says.
In recent months, Matthew and her pastoral assistant Tracey Wright have delivered several sermons challenging parishioners to play a direct role in reducing their negative impact on the environment.
The sermons have focused on issues such as the degradation of the ocean, plastic pollution or limiting meat consumption.
Earlier this year, Matthew came up with the idea of raising greater public attention to the global climate change crisis, with the assistance of local street artist Iain “Ewok” Robinson. Ewok arrived with his spray canisters in July to start painting a multicoloured mural across almost the entire length of the church’s historic red brick perimeter wall.
Twelve years left
Amid the lime green leaves, red-tipped matches and bright orange and yellow flames consuming a forest, Ewok’s mural includes the stark message: “There are only 12 years left.”
While several passing pedestrians and motorists interpreted this as a biblical reference to the end of the world, Matthew says it actually refers to recent reports by international climate change scientists, warning of the need to cut human-induced carbon emissions dramatically by 2030 to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
But the provincial heritage authority, Amafa, has urged Matthew to remove the mural, arguing that the spray painted bricks will start to decay prematurely.
In a statement to a local community newspaper last month, Amafa spokesperson Ros Devereux said the church wall is specially protected as an integral feature of a listed heritage building.
Devereux, who heads the built environment section of the KwaZulu-Natal Amafa and Research Institute, says a permit should have been obtained from both the municipality and Amafa before any graffiti was painted.
“The institute would not have given approval as paint is extremely difficult to remove from brickwork. It traps moisture into the wall that will, over time, force the face of the bricks to pop off, resulting in extensive and expensive repairs,” she says.
“This is a case of good intentions leading to a very bad outcome that must be rectified as soon as possible to avoid the damage referred to.”
Responding to queries as to whether Amafa took similar action where bricks were painted in more neutral colours, Devereux said there was a distinction between buildings over 60 years, which enjoyed general protection, and buildings specifically listed on the provincial Heritage Register.
She said her institute was more lenient on generally protected structures over 60 years old, acknowledging that that many face brick buildings were painted between 40 and 60 years ago when it was fashionable to do so.
In the case of the Manning Road Methodist Church, however, the entire building and boundary wall was specifically protected against any unauthorised alterations, including painting or plastering.
“Ordinarily, the institute would overlook the painting of a plastered wall, but in this case the face brick wall was specifically designed to coordinate with the face brick church and was capped with mouldings to match those on the church,” she says.
Devereux adds that the church had made no attempt to contact or rectify the contravention and a letter had been sent to the church “detailing the offence and the action required”, giving the church 30 days to respond.
Save Our Berea’s outrage
Now the debate has spread to social media, after the Save Our Berea community group posted a protest on its Facebook page, headlined “Outrage”.
“While we recognise that high-end mural art can be a positive force for artistic expression and stimulate debate, and that it can enliven the urban environment and contribute positively to urban regeneration, we think this particular mural, however well-intentioned, has backfired dismally,” said the Save Our Berea group.
A post on the community group said: “We are proud of Berea’s heritage. That it is under threat is well documented and cause for concern. But if a community leader who should be leading by example, takes it upon herself to act unlawfully and randomly deface a heritage building without consultation, and then plead ignorance, what hope is there for the last remaining stock of heritage buildings left on the Berea? We can only hope the paint damage to the brickwork isn’t permanent and that the wall can be restored to its original state.”
Responding to the post, residents have voiced conflicting views. One long-standing church member said he was “horrified and incensed by the destruction of the building”, with another resident commenting that she could not believe that a beautiful brick wall has been painted over with “vulgar graffiti”.
But Wanda Hennig had a different take, commenting that several historic buildings in Durban had been left to decay.
“Now this forward-thinking minister at the Methodist church round the corner hires Ewok to paint a message about climate change she hopes will get people thinking. I am gobsmacked that she is now the target of all this crap. It’s like the cops who patrol the beachfront giving fines to people with expired licenses instead of being out there fighting real crime, doing something worthwhile that matters.”
Putting it into perspective
Berea resident Michael Mitford said he was grateful for the heritage preservation work done by the Save Our Berea community. “However, calling the artwork an outrage and controversial doesn’t quite strike the right tone … The Amazon is burning, the UN has released multiple reports about the catastrophe that awaits us and the effects of the Anthropocene are very much a danger. We can see the decay and destruction around us. To treat this the same way as a ghastly construction is frankly misguided.”
Sharon Ballard said she loved the new mural, adding: “If people don’t wake up now, this wall is not going to matter in 12 years. This message is far bigger and more important than the fact it’s a listed wall.”
In response to these comments, a Save Our Berea moderator said: “We never called the mural or the message an outrage. We are fully aware of the danger this Earth is facing. You don’t go about fixing the ‘wrongs’ of this world with another ‘wrong’ … People are confusing the message with the issue. We are outraged because a listed building has been wilfully defaced.”
Matthew says she did not anticipate the mural would cause such a rumpus, but has not commented on its long-term future. “My thinking was that the church is a space for the common people and how God becomes present in that space,” she says. “The church has to have language that speaks to the community – including things that we don’t always want to look at.
“Our boundary wall is the periphery and I thought it would be nice if it could be used to speak to the community. It is not about defacing our heritage, but about making it relevant. We need to have an urgent dialogue about climate change. That is the whole point.”