A Sermon by

James Ishmael Ford

12 December 2013

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela “Speech from the Dock” 20 April, 1964

We have now witnessed a week of events celebrating Nelson Mandela’s life. The observations began with a memorial service where nearly one hundred heads of state joined other dignitaries and somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty thousand people all gathered in a rain soaked stadium to honor the last of the twentieth century’s great liberators. Our American delegation included all our living presidents except the aging senior Bush. They were received with gratitude and applause, particularly our sitting president who is also, as we know, a son of Africa.

Among the distractions there was a bizarreness about one of the sign language translators, and when he stood at the podium the current president of the South African republic was enthusiastically booed by his countrymen. Here at home our American right had its day finding offense at one thing and another, certainly nothing unexpected.

The real event, however, was the honoring of a singular man. And what his life means lingers as the various observances begin to pass. Following three days lying in state where uncounted mourners marched by his coffin, today Nelson Mandela is laid to rest with a formal State funeral. And so perhaps this might be a good time for us to pause, a good time to think about Nelson Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, and simply as Tata, father; his life, and what that life might mean for us here and in our own lives.

Mandela had many faces in his lifetime, ranging from a tribal childhood, becoming a lawyer and a revolutionary, and then president of his nation. Of course those twenty-seven years in prison are particularly vivid to many of us. Prison breaks people. But it didn’t break Mandela. Nor lapse into bitterness, either, waiting his moment of revenge. Instead something else happened. Mandela, Madiba, Tata emerged from those near three decades something rare and, perhaps holy – a man of peace and reconciliation. And, not only that. He also emerged from prison the most cunning of politicians. In a time of terrible unrest, where a part of the world threatened to run red in blood, Mandela brought old enemies into the same room and cobbled together a transition from tyranny to democracy. Knowing how these things usually go, we’re talking miracles.

So, who was he? How did this happen? Nelson Mandela was born on the18th of July, 1918 as Rolihiahla Mandela, His name Nelson was bestowed some years later at the Methodist missionary school where his teachers thought he needed a “Christian” name. He belonged to a prominent tribal family. His father had been a chief before being deposed by the colonial authorities. In fact when his father died when the boy was nine the paramount chief was named his guardian. So, there was in the midst of a constant beating down by the colonial authorizes, also a lifting up, a body knowing of dignity. This seemed an important ingredient in what would come.

From the beginning Mandela resisted oppression. He was expelled from Fort Hare University for leading a boycott against university policies. Following which he avoided the wrath of his guardian and an arranged marriage by going to Johannesburg, where he completed his degree by correspondence. He then undertook the study of law, failed the finals for his degree, but took the bar exam, passed it, and became an attorney.

He also joined the African National Congress around this time. He quickly became disillusioned with the leadership, writing it was “a dying order of pseudo-liberalism and conservatism, of appeasement and compromise.” Mandela was one of a handful of young Turks who founded the Youth League that pushed the ANC into increasingly radical actions. He was repeatedly arrested, endured several trials including for treason, and finally was convicted of attempting to overthrow the State and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

During these years in his personal life he was austere, never drinking nor smoking. Even many years later as president, he always made his own bed. He married twice before his imprisonment, the second time to the remarkable and controversial Winnie. Between these marriages he had six children, and by the time of his death seventeen grandchildren. After his release from prison and divorce from Winnie, he married a third time to Graca.

At first the conditions in prison were particularly harsh. Mandela slept on a straw mat in a damp concrete cell that measured seven by eight feet. He spent days breaking rocks into gravel, and later worked in a lime quarry. The glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyes. He was allowed to study law but not read newspapers. He was also allowed one visit a year and one letter every six months.

The ANC prisoners elected him their leader and they engaged in a variety of struggles to improve conditions. Mandela saw this as one with the larger anti-aparthied struggle. He also helped to organize a self-educating cooperative that they jokingly called the University of Robbins Island. He studied economics, Christianity and Islam and taught himself Afrikaans.

His mother was his first visitor, but she died soon after. He was forbidden a pass to attend her funeral. His eldest son was killed in an automobile accident, and again he was forbidden a pass to attend the funeral. Winnie was herself in and out of prison, so they rarely saw each other as the years passed.

Something happened in those prison years. Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey in reflecting on once meeting Nelson Mandela wrote, “He was not a saint or a superman. He had his human failings. He started his adult life as an angry young man with a malleable philosophy that ranged from Methodism to Marxism. He even agreed that his enemies were correct to call him a terrorist.”

But somewhere in prison the seeds of his personality germinated, and something strange and mysterious grew. As Horsey observed, “What turned him into the great man who created a legacy comparable to that of Lincoln or Gandhi was his ability and willingness to broaden his understanding of his fellow human beings and to turn away from hate and toward love.” Horsey goes on to name the miracle. “Mandela was a man like any other except in his exemplary capacity to open his heart, even to his enemies.” I think I need to repeat that. “Mandela was a man like any other except in his exemplary capacity to open his heart, even to his enemies.”

President Obama drove the point home, and home to our own hearts and possibility, when he said at that memorial service, of the South Africa, a country shaped by Nelson Mandela more than any other single person, “South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.” We do this, as Mandela, at Tata taught us, by opening our hearts, even to our enemies.

And with this Nelson Mandela showed us we can change. We can change. You and I, we can be different than we have been.

And, it is complicated, as we are. South Africa is a country facing many difficult challenges. The best we can say for it at this moment in history is that it avoided a terrible blood bath and it avoided strong man rule. So far. But, and, that all by itself is astonishing, is wondrous, is worth noting and reflecting on. The South Africans have all the conventional problems of our times, an oligarchic republic that pays more lip service than action to the needs of the broad range of its citizens, particularly the poor, and instead gives too much support to the acquisition of wealth by too few of its members. Something we might recognize. And the possibility of it tumbling even worse.


Just as Mandela wasn’t a perfect man, just someone who saw something powerful and possible because he could open his heart, even to his enemies, we may see our own possibility, our own way through our difficulties.

Resist oppressions of all sorts.

And at the same time love everyone.

This can inform our dealings with our leaders and with each other.

It can be found as we stand against all oppressions. It can be found in standing on a picket line. It can be found in casting a ballot. It can be found in carrying a box of food to our food pantry. It can be found in a letter written to a general or a dictator asking for the release of a political prisoner.

If we open our hearts, there is a chance, there is a possibility, not only of changing our own lives, but the lives of many.

As Tata taught us.

With love, all things become possible.


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