Saturday, December 7, 2013

PATRICK ANDERSON: My Mandela Pilgrimage

(NOTE: The author, Patrick Anderson, is editor of Christian Ethics Today journal. He also recently served as executive coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the interim between Daniel Vestal and Suzii Paynter.)

Several years ago, I traveled to South Africa. In preparation for my trip, I picked up a few books to read, including Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which I read on the long plane ride from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Of course, Mandela was not a total stranger to my brain, but while reading that remarkable book I became a Mandela disciple and, during that trip and since, I have read much of his writings and a great deal about the man himself.

Since I had a couple of days layover on my Africa trip and I was alone, I spent a night near the Soweto Township in Johannesburg and hired a driver to take me on a tour. I visited Mandela’s home. I stood in the front doorway and looked into the tiny living room where a wall had been built the length of the house just inside to block the snipers’ bullets which sometimes were fired into the front window. I walked through the small house and got a sense of how he and Winnie lived there. I saw mementoes given to him through the years, including the World Championship Boxing Belt from Sugar Ray Leonard and letters from school children and dignitaries from around the world. He was loved by many in his life, and inspired some remarkable people.

I walked down the street and around the corner to where his friend, Desmond Tutu, lived, surprised by the close proximity. I tried to imagine life in that small tight-knit community, and remembered the stormy, violent history of that place during Apartheid. My driver-guide tolerated my mulling and questioning. I did not want to leave the place.

Later, I took a plane to Cape Town, and then rode the ferry across to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27 long years in prison under a life sentence. I stood outside the cell he lived in and tried to put myself into that stark setting, sleeping on the thin mat, feeling the cold air, imagining the sounds of that despairing place. I sat on the ground in the courtyard where he and the other prisoners spent many hours each day in silent, tedious work, where they somehow managed to smuggle messages to each other and to people on the outside from that place. I walked in the lime quarry where he and the other prisoners toiled in the hot sun, in a pit so blindingly bright that some were actually blinded.

I thought of how, during all the years he spent in that terrible place, I had lived in comfort and oblivious peace in America, enjoying the benefits of freedom, food, education, good health. Somehow, I felt ashamed of myself, wishing that somehow my life had been more focused and meaningful while Mandela had exhibited such strength and fortitude in his discomforts.

On the ferry back to the mainland, I thought about how Mandela, just like Paul and Silas long before, refused a secret, private release from prison, demanding instead to be released as publicly as he had been incarcerated. His election as President of South Africa, his appointment of his jailer to his cabinet, and his insistence for a full disclosure kind of reconciliation . . . all of those actions he took without any rancor, with no hatred or retaliatory impulse . . . humbled me, and made me both melancholy and thrilled at the display of the human spirit at its best.

Since that pilgrimage, I have thought much about Nelson Mandela, finding in him an inspiration and role model for my own life. Now that he “belongs to the ages,” as President Obama stated, take some time to stop and reflect on Mandela’s life, seeing it as a Christ-like example to us all, far from perfect, very human and full of struggle and hardship. His spirit lives on, and in my own heart I make a new commitment to justice, compassion, and strong living.