The world learned last night that an iconic figure has died. The news of Nelson Mandela’s lingering illness in recent months and his passing yesterday jogged my memory of how his large life affected my small one, and that I would like to share.
These days Mandela’s life is chronicled nicely on Wikipedia and many other websites as well as in books. But during my high school years in the early-to-mid 1970s, information on him was not as readily available. He was in prison by then, an outcast in his own country and by much of the world, and newspapers being the best source for international current events, most of what was written about him during his pre-inprisonment years was old ink and distant memory. I knew little about him. But I did learn about Apartheid in my world history class, wrote a term paper and short story on the subject, and read a couple of South African social justice pieces in my world literature class. I understood that a man was in prison because of his convictions. This idea appealed to me…that someone would stand up for his beliefs in what was right even if it meant prison time. From him I learned about convictions in general, and how important they were to have.
What really intrigued me about the little I knew about Mandela was that he was not advocating Black rule over Whites, even though South Africa was overwhelmingly Black and of course, the Blacks were there first. He was advocating fairness for all, an idea that sunk deep into my own marrow. And so when I was invited to join my Chicano Studies class on a field trip to hear Cesar Chavez speak and see with my own eyes the conditions at a migrant worker camp in the southern San Joaquin Valley, I was eager to go. I had already read the book “Black Like Me” about the mistreatment of Blacks in the South; here was looming injustice in my own backyard involving another ethnic group, Hispanics, some of whom were my friends in school.
So in a very real sense, Nelson Mandela’s legacy helped to shape my values and my career path. A distant mentor of sorts, and as such, worthy of my prayers. I remember the singular day this past year when I prayed for his soul. The Evangelical in me cared about where Mandela would spend eternity. His mother being a devout Christian, she sent him to a Methodist school where he learned Christian values, and after his father’s death, entrusted him to a Christian family who reared him and took him to church every Sunday. He was raised to know that there is a true Redeemer who will someday right all the world’s wrongs. How marvelous that he was able to participate in that work!
Thus I say with confidence, rest in peace Nelson Mandela, the peace I trust you have found in God’s presence.