who will carry on

Peter Storey came to Boston University two weeks ago. If you’ve never heard of him, Storey was chaplain to Mandela and other political prisoners in the 60s; he served as president of the South African Council of Churches near the end of apartheid; he co-chaired the regional Peace Accord structures intervening in political violence before South Africa’s first democratic elections and was one of those appointed by President Mandela to design and select the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

He came to us with extraordinary memories, immense wisdom, and clear eyes; but there was also the hint of a searching heart behind his gaze. He told us of his country’s great progress since the new South Africa began. He told us also of continuing crime, extreme poverty, an educational system in shambles, race relations slow to heal, and vast, though now more racially integrated, chasms between rich and desperately poor. He stood before us with humility and determination, clearly honored and still amazed to have given his life to the work of ending apartheid; yet wondering what he and his country’s other leaders could have done to prepare South Africa for a better future than this one. 

Bishop Storey told us of his days as prison chaplain on Robben Island, one of his first appointments as an ordained clergyman; referring to life among Mandela and the other prisoners as “learning to walk among giants”. But listening to him speak story after story and insight after insight, we knew we were ourselves in the presence of a truly great man. He spoke often of the unnamed people working for freedom in rural areas, of the courage of the victims who came forward to the TRC, of all those who suffered and persevered in the 40-year struggle, and of Mandela’s own regard for the same people. But it was clear that, if they were ever to make a peaceful transition of power without enormous bloodshed and dysfunction, the people had needed Mandela, Tutu, and the other leaders who labored in nonviolence.

In reflecting on his years at Robben Island, Bishop Storey said, “Here I met people who were unafraid.” He once asked one of them, Robert Sobukwe, how he could stand being locked up while his captors went free. Sobukwe stared across the water to Capetown, at white people’s homes for which blacks’ had been bulldozed and at the government building where the powerful levied his sentence. “They are the prisoners,” Sobukwe said, “not me.” 

Storey told us of his country’s “deep sense that we were meant to live better, more gracefully with one another,” and we could see that Mandela had called out to the better, more graceful person inside every oppressor and every anti-apartheid worker. These men fought for decades and yet amidst the frustration and injustice they held themselves and their nation to convictions of non-violence, truth, equality for all, and reconciliation over retaliation. They worked with extreme conviction of the truth, but never with hatred for their enemies. They lived on love for their country and deep, deep faith; a belief that reconciliation was the true way because Jesus said so. And they called an entire nation of wounded people into its nobler self.

So there was not just sadness or frustration – there was a sense of betrayal in Bishop Storey’s voice when he quietly railed against his country’s continued pain and injustices, and its deliverance into the hands of corrupt politicians, corporate lobbies and petty factionalism. It was suddenly hard, in that room, to be young; to hear a still-young but still-70-year-old man wonder why his people had turned from a spirit of greatness to one of selfishness. To hear him wonder who would carry on for him.

We can hurry past the work of remembering how miraculous the end of apartheid was. We can remember Mandela with a sort of pious nod, as if he were a saint or angel sent to someone else’s past. Or we can listen to him bold, unshakeable, human, asking us all to be yet better. Giving us a chance to deny a place in our lives to the lazy way of hatred, or the hateful way of complacency. Leading his own life in the way of Jesus.

We honor Mandela when we refuse to accept selfish motives and easy-ways-out from ourselves and from our leaders.

But perhaps we honor him most when we dare to wonder what sort of God this man served.

A candle is a protest at midnight. It is a nonconformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ’. 
President Mandela, thank you for your light.

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2 Comments

  1. This is both lovely and so important. Thank you, Lyndsey.

    Reply

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