Raleigh mourners celebrate life of Mandela

jshaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 14, 2013 

— In a Baptist church more than 8,000 miles from South Africa, about 200 people gathered to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela on Saturday, finding kinship in their unfinished fights against racism, poverty and inequality.

The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, described the anti-apartheid leader as “our friend and our brother,” and he urged against honoring the tombs of prophets. If Raleigh is truly to praise Mandela, he said, it will imitate him.

“If we love Mandela, let’s work for a living wage,” spoke Barber at First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street. “If we love Mandela, let’s fight for immigrants. If we love Mandela, let’s fight for health care for all.”

Mandela died Dec. 5 at age 95, drawing a worldwide flood of praise that culminated last week when presidents, prime ministers and royalty flocked to his funeral in Johannesburg. South Africa’s first black president spent 27 years in prison for opposing white minority rule.

At the Raleigh service, Mayor Nancy McFarlane told the assembled crowd that her daughter spent a year in South Africa, working among cinder block houses with dirt floors where children must pay to go to school. The mayor visited her daughter in South Africa, and the two traveled to Robben Island, where Mandela spent much of his prison term. Upon seeing it, McFarlane said she was struck by his ability to forgive his oppressors.“South Africa and the world were blessed to have him,” McFarlane said. “He changed the world, and from the moment I stood in his cell, he changed me, too.”

Many speakers noted the parallels between Mandela’s struggles against apartheid in his native country and the push for civil rights in the South.

Mandela himself was a great admirer of Rosa Parks, said The Rev. Collins Kilburn, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches. On a U.S. tour, he once asked to visit Detroit just to meet the iconic woman who, while living in 1950s-Alabama, launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But Parks was somewhat shy, Kilburn said, and she stood to the back of the crowd as Mandela stepped off his plane. When he spotted her, Kilburn said, “His eyes froze, and his mouth dropped open. He saw Rosa Parks and he recognized her, and he started chanting, ‘Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks.’ 

Mandela’s picture stood framed at the front of the church, close to many of Saturday’s speakers; it beamed in a sanctuary otherwise decorated for Christmas.

U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill also spoke and reminded the crowd that the greatest thing to fear is the fading of memory – letting the passing of years dull the pain that brought progress. By looking to Mandela, he said, we avoid splintering as a nation.

We resist thinking poverty springs from laziness or disease from immorality, Price said, when we think of the giants who fought against them.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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