by Fr. John Dear, S.J.
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
With everyone else, I’ve been mourning, celebrating and reflecting these past few days on the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, who died Dec 5. I’m amazed at his political vision; his daring revolutionary commitment; his patient endurance through 27 years in prison; his determination to avoid war and reconcile South Africa upon his release; his persistent forgiveness; his outspoken stance against war, poverty, AIDS and U.S. imperialism; his towering example; and, perhaps most of all, his personal dignity and humanity.
I saw him once, in 1990 in Oakland, Calif., at the end of his national U.S. tour just months after he was released from prison. The Oakland stadium was sold out. It was a beautiful sunny day and the crowd was filled with anticipation. When he walked on stage, the stadium exploded with applause. He gave a stirring speech that was interrupted every few sentences by more applause. His presence was electrifying. I left determined more than ever to do what I could for justice and peace.
In the mid-1980s, I tried to oppose apartheid and very much wanted to attend vigils against apartheid and get arrested with the thousands of others at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. But my Jesuit superiors refused to let me.
In 1987, while teaching world history to 150 high school students in Pennsylvania, I spent a week on South Africa and apartheid. I knew Mandela was not allowed to receive mail, so I proposed that we all write letters of support to Winnie Mandela. Through friends in the movement, we were able to get those 150 letters delivered to her. Everyone was excited to think of her reading our letters.…