He had been sentenced to life imprisonment for resisting against the ruling party's apartheid policies and was lodged in Robben Island prison off Cape Town from 1964 to 1982. Thereafter, he was at Pollsmoor prison, near the mainland. He was released February 11, 1990.
If you're doing the math, you know that as momentous an occasion as this is, Mandela spent more time behind cold iron bars than he has in the warm sunshine of freedom.
His hair may be gray and his body may be showing the unmistakable signs of age, but his mind remains keen and sharp. His spirit still inspires us.
His dear friend and spiritual mentor, Desmond Tutu, the retired bishop of Cape Town and Archbishop of South Africa who became the 'voice of one crying in the wilderness' against the evils of Apartheid, said,
“The day Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster Prison our collective spirit soared. It was a day that promised the beginning of the end of indignity. Four years later we voted for the first time. Some termed the new South Africa a miracle, the Rainbow Nation of God.I am remembering another momentous day in my past - the second time I met Desmond Tutu.
“Now, 20 years and four national elections down the line, our infant democracy is learning to walk. So much has been achieved, and there is so much yet to achieve.
“When we look around us and see the number of our compatriots still living in squalor, attending under-equipped schools, crammed like sardines into unsafe minibus taxis… we wonder when the fruit of democracy will reach the tables of all of our people.
“If we really want to make a difference we must recapture the spirit of that day of Nelson Mandela’s release. We must recapture the spirit of pride once articulated by Steve Biko.
“We must not forget the past.”"
The first was at the Omni Hotel in Washington, DC. It was January, 1986. I had just finished taking the General Ordination Exams and, as a present, my bishop sent me to attend the Consecration of Edmund Browning as new Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.
I was there and heard Ed Browning's newly minted gospel promise that, "in this church there will be no outcasts." He paid a very high price for that promise, but living the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ has never been without cost.
After the service, I had taken a table way over in the corner. I had walked about three miles from the National Cathedral to the Omni Hotel - not a bad hike - but I had worn my proper Episcopal pumps for the occasion and, quite frankly, my feet were sore and I was cranky.
I just wanted a few minutes - 15 or 20 - to be by myself before the rest of the madding political crowd arrived and started the relentlessly chipper glad-handing and back-slapping and prognostication - and well, gossip - that always happens at events like these.
I had been seated about 5 minutes when I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a delightful male voice in an accent I couldn't quite place ask, "May I join you at this table, please?" When I looked up, there he was. Desmond Tutu.
I'm not sure what I said, exactly, but what I meant to say was, "Certainly, I'd be honored. Please sit down." It must have come out something pretty close to that because, the next thing I knew, there we were, sitting next to each other like long lost friends, catching up on each other's lives, sharing a bowl of ice cream.
I later learned that his security had selected this particular table because it was near an emergency exit - very important when death threats follow you wherever you travel. It was hard not to notice the bullet-proof vest he was wearing.
He asked me what had brought me to this event. I explained about the GOEs and my bishop's gift. His eyes brightened. "You will be a priest?" he asked.
"God willing and the people consenting," I said, laughing.
He laughed and then looked deep into my eyes for a few very uncomfortable seconds.
"Good!" he declared, rather loudly, which startled me. "I see compassion. Which means you know something about suffering. And so, God's love. And, you have a great laugh. You will be a good priest," he said, then, slapping his hand down on the table and laughing, declared, "This is good."
I could hardly breath. I was stunned that he could see something in me that neither the Commission on Ministry nor anyone at my seminary had even questioned me about, much less discussed with me as something that qualified me for ordained leadership in the church.
No one had even asked me about Jesus or my prayer life. What everyone seemed most concerned to know is where I, a woman - which was bad enough - but a woman in a committed relationship with another woman and a family of six children, thought I could find work.
As I tried to regain my composure, he continued, "We do not ordain women in South Africa. Yet. Do not worry. It will come. Justice and mercy will come to South Africa. It will come more fully, even to the church."
This was 1986. In June of that year, the State of Emergency declared 10 years earlier after the Soweto Uprising was extended to the entire country of South Africa. Apartheid would not officially be over turned until 27 April 1994 when the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, with people of all races being able to vote.
There are so many wonderful stories I could tell you about that amazing one hour visit with Desmond. Perhaps you and I, one day in the not-too-distant future, will also have a serendipitous meeting and we'll sit cross-legged on the floor, me with my bourbon and you with your favorite libation, and I'll tell you all about it.
Right now, I really want to tell you about what happened the second time I met him, more than a decade later.
I was at a special awards ceremony at NYU where one of our daughters was working. Both Hillary Clinton and Desmond Tutu were slated to be speakers. Our daughter, having been regaled over the years by my stories and sermons about Tutu, thought I might like the opportunity to see him again at the special reception that would take place just before the ceremony. Gee, ya think?
"Ah," said the Archbishop when he saw me, "You made it! You are a priest!" I think my jaw hit my chest. Could it be that he remembered me? No! Not possible. He's just a very clever man, I thought.
Not so. He actually recalled parts of our conversation and, when I looked astonished, dismissed it by saying, "When I share a bowl of ice cream with someone, we are friends forever. Besides," he added with a twinkle in his eye and looking Mrs. Clinton, "I never forget a priest. Especially one of the first women priests I ever met."
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
As I struggled to gain my composure, I asked him about his health. He had been recently diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. He seemed genuinely flattered that I would ask and said that he got tired from the radiation but that his "spirit was still strong."
"You know, I must say, bishop," I heard myself say with surprising calm, "that when I heard that you had taken on the position of Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shortly after your diagnosis, I thought to myself, 'Is he crazy?'"
Tutu roared with absolute delight and said, "Yes, yes. Now you know the secret."
And then he looked at me. The same way he had looked at me more than a decade earlier. Everyone else in the room seemed to fade away and it was just me and the archbishop, looking someplace deep into my soul.
"When my President. . . you know 'My President', yes? Nelson Mandela - when Mr. Mandela asked me to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I declined," he said.
"I said to him, Mr. President, I am not well suited for this position."
"'Why?'"asked President Mandela."
"'No, no, no, sir,' I said to him, 'You see, I am tired. I am weak. And besides, I laugh too much.'"
"'Hmmm, said Mandela', who then brightened and declared, "Then you are perfect to be the Chair of Truth and Reconciliation Commission!'"
"'How is that, sir?'" I asked."
"'Well,' said my President, 'if you are tired and weak, then you know something about the hard work of telling the truth, and if you laugh too much . . .," Tutu paused, raised an eyebrow and looked expectantly for me to finish the sentence.
"Then you know something about the nature of reconciliation!" I exclaimed.
"Ah!" said the archbishop,"See!" he said, looking over his shoulder to Mrs. Clinton, "I told her years ago that she would become a good priest!"
I must say, in that moment, my spirit soared.
If he had said, "Drop whatever it is you are doing and come, follow me," I would have done it in a heartbeat.
What he said was, "It has been so good to see you again. Now, you must go and so must I. We each have something Jesus wants us to do. Go. Follow him."
And then we embraced and he was escorted to the stage.
Over the next twenty-four hours, political pundits will wax poetic about the leadership of Nelson Mandela and the Evils of Apartheid. Analysis will be made, opinions will be expressed, and accolades will be given.
Yes, it took a political process to overturn the governmental system of Apartheid. Yes, there is still much work to be done in South Africa. On the entire continent of Africa. And, Asia. And Europe. And North America. Indeed, right here in my neck of the woods. And yours, too, I imagine.
In the end - as it was in the beginning - it will be through the eyes of the soul that a vision of liberty and justice for all will be seen.
It will not be politics that transforms the world. It will be the human heart.
It will not be human strength that carries out the vision of justice and peace. It will be telling the truth of our stories and seeking reconciliation, both of which sit as sentinels at the entrance into the Realm of God.
All that is required is the courage to admit that we are weak and tired.
Nothing will make our collective spirits soar higher than to laugh - even too much or too loudly - into the face of evil.
Laughter, I have come to learn, is the greatest statement of faith. If you can laugh in the face of evil, there can be no doubt, no doubt on earth as it is in heaven, that you believe and trust in God.
Congratulations, Mr. Mandela. Congratulations, Archbishop Tutu. Congratulations, Steven Biko. Congratulations, South Africa.
May the love that is among us, the love that is between us and the love that is within us always inspire our collective spirits to soar to the Love that is above us.