I share these thoughts with friends and colleagues, with the hope that they will share their own reflections about the life and death of Nelson Mandela. 1. The death of a highly recognized person evokes and provokes the media to remind us of the history, the events and the circumstances that motivated the now deceased person to achieve what they have achieved. And, in doing that we come face-to-face with history some would rather forget or deny, and/or history that some have not known.
2. The brutality of apartheid as depicted in the scenes that are presented on television, or painted by radio accounts, reminds us again of how despite our rhetoric about humanity and justice, and justice for all, our deeds too often are quite distant from our creeds. And, for those of us who claim and are claimed by religious faith, we see again how the silence of the majority of the faithful and their institutions, in the face of injustice, reveals how frightened and fragile are these religious/spiritual institutions.
3. NELSON MANDELA said of himself that he was not a saint but rather a sinner who sought to do saintly things (paraphrase). He was a living example of how charisma is too often associated with oratory, and not with charismatic actions. Mandela's charisma was in his "walk" and not his "talk". There is a lesson here for the charismatic orators of our time, whether in the pulpit or elsewhere. And, for those of us who wish that our preaching and teaching had that charismatic flavor that when heard, lifted people out of their seats, we can now set aside our insecurity about our oratory, and revisit how we have "walked" in the past, and how we ought "walk" in the present and the future. Nelson Mandela should become our model as much as Martin Luther King has been our model.
4. I have never forgotten my bus ride with others from First United Methodist Church in Germantown/Philadelphia to Yankee Stadium to see and hear Nelson Mandela. He won the hearts of Yankee fans (I am not one of them) when he said, much like what President Kennedy said of himself in Berlin, about being a Berliner, Mandela said, "I am a Yankee" as he received Yankee baseball memorabilia. There was electricity in the air, as we welcomed Mandela to the USA. And, Harlem has not forgotten his visit to Caanan Baptist Church when Wyatt Tee Walker was the Pastor. Those of us all races who were active in the racial justice struggle in our nation, hoped that the presence of Nelson Mandela would add new energy to our racial justice journey. I linked my arrest as one of the many protestors of apartheid outside of the South African Embassy, in 1985, to the quest for Independence in South Africa and all of the majority black nations in Africa.
5. Finally, the death of Nelson Mandela gives us new reasons to explore the how and why of legal and Constitution-sanctioned marriage equality for same sex couples in South Africa today. We are aware of the anti-gay language, legislation and sometimes-violent actions in some of the nations of Africa. But, at times there has been a generalized bashing of all of black Africa, without remembering South Africa; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. How is it that when the struggle in South Africa clearly was a white against black struggle, and black resistance to white oppression, did equality, and equal access for same sex couples and LGBTQ persons become linked to racial equality? The reasons and rationale that emerge from the writings of South African Courts and Legislatures offer some explanations for why some of us who are African American, in church and society, without wasting time debating sameness between racial oppression and gay oppression, are active as advocates and allies of equality and equal access for same sex loving couples, and LGBTQ persons.
Howard Thurman has written these words in his "On Viewing the Coast of Africa". He begins; "From my (boat) cabin window I look out on the full moon, and the ghosts of my forefathers rise and fall with the undulating waves."
Thurman then asks these questions as he looks at the Coast of Africa; "How does the human spirit accommodate itself to desolation? How did they? What tools of the spirit were in their hands with which to cut a path through the wilderness of their despair? ...In a strange moment, when you caught your breath, did some intimation of the future give to your spirits a wink of promise".
Howard Thurman of course was remembering the Africans who were led to slave ships that carried them to lands that made them slaves who provided the free slave labor that made possible the economic successes of the USA and other nations. But, if we look deeply into and at the life of Nelson Mandela, we find answers to the questions that Thurman raised.