One holy moment in my life was breathing the same air as Nelson Mandela. When my husband, Bill, was moderator of the United Church, we were invited by Prime Minister Chrétien to a Toronto dinner in Mandela’s honour. It was 1998, and his second visit to Canada. He was awarded the Order of Canada, then he and his wife Graça Machel spent an afternoon with 46,000 school children at Toronto's SkyDome stadium. It was a time of hope; I felt proud to be Canadian.
The diner at the Royal York Hotel was a formal occasion, and even though we all knew that we were standing on holy ground, it felt joyful, not stiff. After all, we were with a person who had faced hatred and stared back at death many times. Journalists, such as Peter Gzowski; athletes, such as skater Elvis Stojko; entertainers, such as singer Susan Aglukark and jazz pianist Oliver Jones; politicians, such as Gilles Duceppe; and religious leaders, such as Bill, all mixed together, feeling good. I think that our faces reflected Mandela’s beautiful spirit. He held us in that dining room, just as he held his country, in love.
But what I recall most of that dinner was the goodwill. It was perhaps, a taste of ubuntu, which President Obama mentioned during his speech at Mandela’s memorial. More than kindness, ubuntu means that “I am who I am because of who we all are.” It brings out the best in us. That is what Nelson Mandela did. He made us want to work harder for a beautiful world. And he showed us how. You may recall one example at his presidential inauguration, when his jailers attended as his honoured guests.
Bill and I saw Mandela again in Harare, Zimbabwe three months later, when Mandela addressed the meeting of the World Council of Churches — a surprise decision. It seemed to take him forever to walk from his car, along the shaded path to the huge auditorium stage. Five thousand visitors, stewards, staff and global religious delegates wanted to touch him, photograph him and see that smile for themselves. Some stood on chairs and held one another steady as he walked, greeting as many as possible.
He said that he was no saint, just “a sinner who keeps trying.” Maybe that was part of the reason why he thrilled us. We recognized his “unconquerable soul.”
Mandela asserted that W.E. Henley’s Victorian poem Invictus (Unconquered) helped keep his humanity during his prison years. What better reason to memorize poetry?
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
My city was asleep when I rose at 4 a.m. last Tuesday. I made tea in a silver heirloom pot. I raised my mother’s Royal Doulton tea cup to the television screen, where Mandela’s face smiled at me from the beyond. In the Advent calendar, he died during the week of Hope. The memorial was held during Peace week while he was buried during the week of Joy. Add Love, and you have the four weeks of Advent. And a great leader.