A man who shed bitterness and anger to instill reconciliation for an entire country. An icon for change and equality. A leader who persevered in a decades-long quest for justice.
Those are just a few ways justice leaders, past and present, from the United Church of Christ are evoking the lasting legacy of Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 95 in South Africa. A prisoner-turned-president of South Africa, Mandela will be remembered as a hero for helping the nation overcome apartheid, the state-enforced racial segregation that finally ended in 1994.
The Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, who was executive minister for UCC Justice and Witness Ministries from 1999 to 2005, never had a chance to meet Mandela on the occasions she traveled to South Africa. Still, she knows his presence loomed larger than life.
"He meant so much to the people of South Africa and also means so much to the people of the world," she said. "His leadership, his ability to go beyond hatred and anger and revenge to a place of reconciliation, and lead people to that same place, is something most of us will never see again, I think."
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting apartheid. His incarceration drew the world's attention on South Africa, and after his release in 1990 he served as president for one term, from 1994 to 1999 — a rarity on a continent where political leaders enter office and cling to power. During his presidency, he established a commission to examine human rights violations during apartheid, and introduced economic development initiatives to improve the standard of living for blacks in South Africa.
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, was saddened like so many around the globe to learn of Mandela's death, but added that Mandela inspired generations of people who were committed to justice, peace and equality in South Africa and throughout the world.
"I remember well the day he was released from prison and how proud I was of him in that moment," Black said. "He exuded courage and dignity in his manner and his words. I thank God for giving him all of the gifts and graces that enabled him to live the life he lived in service to humanity and the ideals of freedom, justice and equality."
Another UCC national officer, the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, who has served since 2005 as Justice and Witness Ministries' executive minister, saw Mandela speak to the World Council of Churches gathering in Zimbabwe in 1998. She will remember how Mandela displayed the "power of the human spirit" in his continuous quest to resist racial oppression.
"He's basically an icon, a giant in our lives, a giant to all of us in the world," Jaramillo said. "The thing that occurs to me, as I think about the UCC history [against slavery], was his push against the apartheid system."
Powell Jackson thinks of Mandela as the equivalent of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr., in that "he founded this new country — the new South Africa — and was a person of reconciliation and peace, and that meant so much for so many people," she said.
When he left office, Mandela championed other human right's causes, such as HIV-AIDS awareness. Endeared to the people of South Africa, both black and white, Mandela spent many of his recent years away from the spotlight because he was often ill, but his legacy lives on.
"There is a universal love and respect for this man in South Africa," Powell Jackson said. "He has been and will still be an inspiration for so many people."
Flags in South Africa have been lowered to half-staff until Mandela's funeral, which is scheduled for Dec. 15. The UCC's national offices will have a 1 p.m. worship service in Mandela's memory on Friday, Dec. 6, in the Amistad Chapel in Cleveland.
Mandela's passing is a reminder of his tireless work, and that in every country of the world, the possibility for apartheid to return is real — and must be stamped out.
Global Ministries, a shared ministry between the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sent its condolences to partner organizations in South Africa and expressed its admiration for the paramount example Mandela set throughout his life.
"The world will remember this calm and stable man for his stand on reconciliation," wrote the Rev. Sandra Gourdet, executive for Global Ministries' Africa office. "His determination to resist the evil that divides us as human beings who share one nation or one world is a testimony to the impossible becoming a reality. He will also be remembered for his grace and willingness to step aside to make room for others."
"He continued to share an example of human spirit to survive. In his passing, it calls upon us to never forget," Jaramillo said. "He's a model for persistence, a model we must follow in our consciousness. He will be missed."