Duke holds interfaith vigil for Nelson Mandela

Dec. 10, 2013 @ 09:08 PM

Members of the Duke University community bowed their heads and clasped hands Tuesday night within Duke Chapel, remembering freedom fighter and president of South Africa Nelson Mandela just days after he died.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” said Duke Chapel Dean Luke Powery, leading the pews of supporters in prayer. Displayed at the front of the pews was a poster that read, “Mandela for President - The People’s Choice!” Mandela smiled, warm and inviting, in the portrait.

Mandela passed away Thursday at 95. He was remembered Tuesday as a man fighting for equality, education for all, the end of poverty and for liberating fears and striving for goodness.

Duke sophomore Busi Sibeko, who’s from South Africa and the first in her family to go to college, said her generation will never understand what it was like to live in a land torn apart by apartheid, to be denied the right to vote.

“Nelson Mandela once said that death was something inevitable,” Sibeko said. “When a man does something that is considered a duty to his country and his people, he can rest in peace.”

“It is in our hands now,” she added. “I urge you all today to go back and think about what your duty is to your country and your people.”

Mandela studied for a bachelor of arts degree but was expelled from the University of Fort Hare for joining a student protest. He continued his schooling through the University of South Africa. He started the Youth League of the African National Congress, South Africa’s national liberation movement, and helped start the first black law firm in South Africa.

In October 1963, Mandela was on trial for sabotage, facing the death penalty. He said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

He served more than 27 years in prison and was released in 1990. He once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” Four years later, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Duke professors Catherine Adcock Admay and Karin Shapiro read a tribute to Mandela, written by the Rev. Peter Storey. Storey is a South African Methodist minister and a Duke Divinity School professor.

Storey was chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, a place of banishment and imprisonment in Cape Town. He met Mandela 50 years ago in his jail cell, when he was a newly ordained part-time chaplain.

It was a Sunday, the prisoners’ one day off, but they spent it on lockdown.

“My memories of Mandela were of a strong, vital character in the prime of his manhood, all strength and contained energy,” according to Storey. “He had a ready smile and clearly appreciated the dilemma of a young minister trying, under the cold eyes of the guards, to bring a moment of humanity into this desolate place.”

Mandela was hailed for being a genius of “Ubuntu,” or translated as “human kindness,” the understanding that one life is bound to the lives of others. 

“He helped the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice,” Powery said. “... His life preached a sermon that is echoed all over the world today.”

At the end of the service, Duke Chapel organist David Arcus sat down on the piano bench, leading the crowd with strong chords. Students sang along, reciting the National Anthem of South Africa.

“United we shall stand. Let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa, our land.”