Meeting Nelson Mandela
by Ed Mulder, general secretary emeritus
I remember it well. It was July 4, 1990. The place was a small conference room in a New York City hotel. I had been invited, along with six other church leaders, to meet with Nelson Mandela.
To say the least, I was impressed with the man. I remembered vividly the Sunday he had been released from prison after spending 27 years there. He had the appearance of a gentle and gracious man. He wore a winsome smile and talked about the need for peace and reconciliation.
Earlier in the week, Mandela had arrived in the United States to express appreciation to the churches for the support they had given in dismantling apartheid through advocating for divestments and sanctions.
A massive service was scheduled at Riverside Church. People gathered from around the country. The service was electrifying, and the music was magnificent. There were drums and dancers, and clergy outfitted in colorful garb. It was a festive occasion.
We were humbled by the words this man spoke. He was the representative of a people who had suffered so much.
On that July night in 1990 Nelson Mandela thanked the RCA and others for standing in solidarity with the oppressed people of South Africa.
I remembered what Dr. Beyers Naudé [a South African cleric and anti-apartheid activist] had said to me on a visit to South Africa in 1980: "Tell the Reformed Church in America that we are engaged in a civil war. It is impossible to be neutral about apartheid. You are with us, or against us." And then he said, "We need the international community and the church to stand with us in solidarity."
It was in 1982 that the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa drafted the Belhar Confession. It is a powerful statement declaring the need for unity, reconciliation, and justice. Even as URCSA adopted this statement as their confession, they invited us to do the same, and in 2010 we did, adding the Belhar Confession to our standards of unity.
The times continue to be critical. Mandela's election to the presidency and the governance of the African National Congress did not solve all of the problems left by apartheid.
With the death of Mandela, a powerful leader of reconciliation, we need once again to stand in solidarity with the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa.