NBTS E-Story

A Word from Dr. Gregg Mast on the Life of Nelson Mandela

The first time I heard his name, it was whispered to me in the streets of Johannesburg: "Nelson Mandela."

It was July, 1976. My wife Vicki and I had just arrived in South Africa. Six weeks earlier, Soweto's school children rioted against apartheid. There was a sense of awe in the whispers. Mandela had already spent more than a decade in the prison on Robben Island. Among the oppressed his messianic role strengthened with each year that passed.

But his name was also whispered in fear, for it was literally illegal to display his photograph, which gives one a sense of how much the white apartheid government feared him.

Our arrival in South Africa in 1976 began my one-year commitment to serve as an assistant pastor of a multinational congregation in Johannesburg. I learned much in that year, but perhaps the most profound lesson was the palpable fear on the part of the whole population that apartheid would someday end in a "blood bath" of epic proportions.

Fast-forward 14 years and I am sitting in a side-aisle pew of New York City's Riverside Church. Mandela has come to the United States to thank everyone who supported the struggle.

It is June 21, 1990. The sanctuary is electric! Finally around noon, two hours late, African drums beat a rhythm for the entrance of a king. Nelson Mandela walks down the center aisle as royalty. The man whose name was whispered on the streets of Soweto and Johannesburg now commands the global stage.

Apartheid was dismantled, not with the blood of many, but through the wisdom and courage of a single man who spent 27 years in an island prison.

Nelson Mandela was one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. His vision for a new day inspired a nation. His dream of post-apartheid South Africa led his country to become a more just and reconciled place. His commitment to non-violent change made him a hero to the world.

I mourn his passing and celebrate his life.

We all commend him into the heart of a God who has whispered his name and called him home.

Gregg Mast
President, New Brunswick Theological Seminary

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