The great Nelson Mandela has died. Peacefully, after a long illness, surrounded by the love of his family, his nation, the world. To lose a hero is always an enormous grief, and yet Mandela was one hero who got to see his work through. This time we got the whole inspiring story – not just a man who stood up for his people and who suffered for his rebellion, but also a man who emerged from his long years in prison with a whole heart, with his capacity for love intact. Who was able to lead his country in the path of truth and reconciliation; who was able to walk a long ways down that road toward the land of freedom and justice.
What a gift. Too often we have the stories of the martyrs, the heroes cut down in their prime who live on in our memory and our aspiration, but who never got to step into the Promised Land. Of course South Africa is not a perfected Land of Milk and Honey. This is the real world and grave problems are never simply erased. But Mandela got to see his people choose justice over revenge. He got to see his country tear down barricades, reach across chasms that seemed like they could never be crossed.
In Mandela we had the story of a great man who suffered for his cause, but this time the suffering was the middle of the story, not the end. And as much as we owe to the martyrs, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Victor Jara and Megar Evers and all the rest, we owe still more to the people who live out decade after decade of speaking truth in the spirit of love, who never stop pushing the world toward justice.
Of course, most of these people we never hear about. So today, I will remember the tremendous legacy of Nelson Mandela. But I will also remember people like Molly Piontkowski, who came to this country as a young woman and never stopped working to make it meet up with her hopes of what she would find here. Who was already in her 80s when I got to know her, and was still pushing on the city of Chicago for fair housing, for services for seniors, for shelter for abused women. Who I remember not for the saintly gentleness we expect of elderly women, but rather for her cranky determination that the world simply needed to be a better place than it was.
Molly, like Mandela, is gone now. But we still have Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry—and thousands, maybe millions of you who keep on doing the work of justice and love and truth and peace because it is there to be done. The need won’t go away. I give thanks daily for the people who won’t go away either.