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In April 1990, two months after Nelson Mandela’s release from South Africa’s prison on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, I was invited to join a small delegation of clergy from the United States who had been supportive of the anti-apartheid movement and had provided a New York office for the African Nationalist Congress (ANC) that was continuing its freedom struggle in exile. A significant figure in that work was the Reverend Wyatt T. Walker, pastor of the Canaan Avenue Baptist Church in New York city and former Chief of Staff for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights struggle here in the United States.
Ours was the first international group to travel to South Africa to meet Mr. Mandela after his release. It was my second visit to South Africa having first visited there in 1989 before the election that made the moderate conservative, F.W. de Klerk the last president under the apartheid regime. At that time the electorate was equally divided between two conservative groups with very little difference between them on the issue of apartheid. Consequently, few expected much change.
Our delegation met Mr. Mandela in the back yard of his small two bed-room cinder block house in the black township of Soweto where he had been forced to live prior to his arrest in 1962. After his release he chose to return to that house which was identical to that of thousands of others in the township: an act that symbolized his identification with the ordinary people of his country. Shaking hands with him was truly the greatest moment of my life. I will never forget the warmth of his greeting as he thanked the people of the United States for their faithful support during the anti-apartheid struggle. That is all I can recall him saying at that time because I was so mesmerized by his gracious presence and his gentle, confident voice as he expressed his hope and diligent resolve for a new South Africa. We found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of people who surrounded his house morning, noon and night.
Like all genuine heroes who succeed in saving their respective nations from the abyss of moral decay and spiritual degradation, Nelson Mandela has become a revered ancestor not for his people in South Africa alone but for all the peoples on this planet. Henceforth, all generations everywhere will be inspired by the stories of his courageous actions, quiet dignity, selfless devotion, forgiving nature and reconciling spirit. I pray that we will join with the millions of black South Africans who continuously dance and sing in celebration of Mandela’s homecoming among the ancestors whose spirits are embraced eternally by the one Supreme God of us all.