CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In August, we observed the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington; in November, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, and now the death of Nelson Mandela.
Dr. Howard Thurman, a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a eulogy to Kennedy that would be an appropriate tribute to Mandela:
"The time and place of a man's life on earth are but the time and place of his body, but the meaning and significance of his life are as vast and far-reaching as his gifts, his times, and the passionate commitment of all his powers can make it."
Kennedy and King were victims of an assassin's bullet, and so was Gandhi who was heralded as Father of a Nation after leading a non-violent protest that transformed India, after an initial campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Seemingly by Providential design, Nelson Mandela lived long enough to see his gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation transform his times and change the world. The grace in his face, the splendor in his stride and the dance in his demeanor captured the hearts of friend and foe alike. The power of his compassion overcame contempt and righteous retribution as expected responses to the ordeal he endured.
When students were jailed and brutalized during the Civil Rights Movement, there was reasonable expectation of a short tenure behind bars because bail bonds were often at hand. Dr. King was incarcerated many times but never spent 27 days consecutively behind bars, let alone 27 years. Yet, Mandela speaks of the transformative power of his jail time as he writes in his book "Conversations with Myself:"
"... the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your mind."
A road to reconciliation ran through Robben Island and nourished the spirit of a servant leader who bent history and now belongs to the ages. When it is darkest we can see the stars. In this season that celebrates love and light overwhelming darkness, Mandela's death illumines our way with gifts that keep on giving. We can be encouraged by his words: "Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying."
Mandela's compassionate spirit invites us to join him on the journey toward a more civil society and a better world. The magnificence of his life can bless us in and beyond the holidays if we choose to incarnate his presence on our path toward "peace on earth and good will toward men."
English, of Charleston, was among a delegation of African American ministers who met with Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa in April 1990 on the invitation of Bishop Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders in the struggle against apartheid.