A Reflection on Hope, Mr. Mandela, and Waiting

A Reflection on Hope, Mr. Mandela, and Waiting

This reflection was originally preached as part of a collaborative sermon, “The Warm and Flickering Light of Hope” at First Unitarian Church, Providence, RI on December 8, 2013

They stuck round yellow stickers on us as we walked through the singing crowd. Wandering around London, a gaggle of high school sophomore tourists broken away from the not so watchful eyes of our chaperones, we meandered around Trafalgar Square, listening to people handing out leaflets. “Freedom Now!” they cried. And I, a young teen girl from Newport, thought,”Yeah, Freedom! I know what that means. I know how much I want to feel free.” But, really, I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.

I did know that Everyone Should Be Free.

Needing to get back to our tour group, we didn’t stay long. I remember the energy of the rally, the immediacy of their cries for freedom. I was feeling glad for this moment of connection with something big, something Important. Connection with something way beyond my circle of friends, a larger truth. “Freedom Now!”

I boarded the tour bus, and as I energetically stepped past the driver he saw my stickers and snarled, “So… You support Murderers, then, do you?”

Shocked at the hatred in this strangers face, I had no reply. I moved back and took my seat. What was it about this little yellow circle picturing a black man’s face that made the driver lash out at a fourteen year old girl? His reaction made me vow to find out more about the face on the sticker. Who was this “Nelson Mandela?” And what…was Apartheid?

Once home, I learned more about South Africa, Apartheid, the boycotts, and calls for divestment. I learned that the rally in Trafalgar Square was the first days of a multi-year, nonstop picket of the South African Embassy. I occasionally wrote letters with Amnesty International.  I would “helpfully inform” my peers, as they sipped, why they shouldn’t drink Coca Cola (an investor in South Africa.) The great Ska song, “Free Nelson Mandela” went on every mixed tape I made for a couple years…given to friends far and near.  My actions were small and based in my privilege as a white girl in Rhode Island.

It’s not the impact of my contribution to the anti-apartheid movement that is significant, though. The fact that I was aware of this man half a world away, that I cared about this one of thousands of global political prisoners, and was moved to act at all, is amazing.

In the past couple of days, I have been trying to explain to my kids why Mr. Mandela is so important to me and the whole world. It’s not easy to find the words. In fact, I hadn’t really understood that this man, whom I never met, of whom I can’t even claim to be a close follower, helped shape me…how his story is part of my story.

Nelson Mandela literally became the face of a global campaign against apartheid. Within South Africa, a ban on his image meant that as the years of imprisonment turned to decades, most people weren’t even sure what he looked like anymore – he became a near mythological figure.

Emily Dickinson wrote,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Hope was the face on my yellow sticker that surged hatred in the white London bus driver. Hope was the power of connection I felt with the crowd picketing the South African Embassy.

The South African government was correct in knowing Mandela’s face could stir a nation, but they underestimated the power of hope that stirred the world. They thought that without a picture, everyone would forget Mandela, that as his image faded, his power would fade away. Imprisonment did not keep his ideas from changing the world. Isolation did not keep Mr. Mandela from influencing the next generations of activists and shaping ideas on how best to reconcile his country.

And after finally, finally, the South African government realized they could no longer hold out economically or politically, Apartheid was dismantled. Mandela was released. And we all watched. What does all that waiting do to a spirit? Would he be hardened? Bitter? Apathetic?

At the start of his prison term in 1964 on Robben Island, Mandela wrote: “In prison you come face to face with time. There’s nothing more terrifying.” While I have not endured the inhuman conditions of decades-long imprisonment, I can identify with these words. We are all, at times, locked in situational or psychological torment. We wait.

Theologian Henri Nouwen tells us that waiting is a positive time, is an act of promise. He wrote, “Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing on the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.” (Waiting on God)

Waiting is not empty time. Even a place of darkness, pain, and chaos is full of rightness. This sort of active waiting requires faith and hope. It requires admitting that we do not have the right answers, that we do not know where we are going- but that we know we will get there. Woyaya*.

Waiting time becomes pregnant with possibility. Waiting is creating space for unknown growth, change, and grace in our lives. After 27 years of impossible conditions, Mr. Mandela found the grace to lead South Africa in an astonishing truth and reconciliation process.

But even in his solitary prison cell, Mandela was not alone. Ideas passed among African National Congress inmates. Certainly he worked with countless partners in creating a new South African society after he was released. We don’t do this alone. So often stories of change seem superhuman and even intimidating. Not thinking ourselves as heroes, we isolate, immobilized by fear and despair.

Nelson Mandela is a global symbol of human rights. He was an incredibly powerful, intelligent, and inspiring man who met baffling challenges. He also was no more amazing than you are. You have all the strength, the access to grace, and hope that he did.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a hope filled faith. Unitarian Universalism teaches us that our purpose is to the shape the world into our image of Love. That we are not only worthy of love, but compelled to make our understanding of love real in the world. And that we are not alone.

We are connected to each other and to a source of love. We create this world together. When one is resting, another gives support. We take turns acting and waiting in various degrees, our strength and forward progression depends on trusting this collective effort, even if we can’t see what’s ahead.

While we wait for the return of the light, how might we embrace Unitarian Universalism’s collective power of hope for ourselves? For our families? How are we partnering with our Source to make Love real in our world?

*Woyaya (from the Ghanaian, “We Are Going”) is a song originally sung by British AfroPop band Osibisa.
We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We will know we’re there
We will get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will
It will be hard we know
And the road will be muddy and rough
But we’ll get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will
We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We will know we’re there

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