The death of Nelson Mandela this past week has brought much attention to his life and to the story of South Africa. My wife and I were privileged to be able to travel to South Africa this past May. While we were there we visited Cape Town and, about a 25 minute boat ride away, Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years.

The death of Nelson Mandela this past week has brought much attention to his life and to the story of South Africa. My wife and I were privileged to be able to travel to South Africa this past May. While we were there we visited Cape Town and, about a 25 minute boat ride away, Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years.


Apartheid, which means separate or apart, had been enshrined in the constitution ofSouth Africa. This meant that native blacks, who were and still are the majority of the population, were not allowed to vote, nor were they allowed access to the affluence that enabled white immigrants to flourish and hold power.


Nelson Mandela was a man of hope who, after being educated as one of the first black lawyers in the country, began working to change the laws that kept people apart and limited their ability to move ahead.


He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison after some of the protests became violent. 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison were on Robben Island, where he and others were forced to do hard labor. This picture is of the rock quarry, where he and others broke the limestone rock into gravel.


In the middle of the picture is a cave that was once 21 meters deep. It is now only 7 meters deep. That means that roughly 45 feet of rock was removed from the face of the cliff with picks and hammers by the prisoners.


The order for the guards in the tower above it was to shoot to kill anyone who went anywhere without permission. The exception was to visit the cave where they could relieve themselves. Because it had such a bad odor the guards would not go into the cave. But, that meant that it was one of the few places the prisoners were able to talk freely among themselves. We were told that more than half of the new constitution for South Africa was written in that cave through the conversations they had with one another.


That is inspiring to me that even then, in that place, they had such a vision of what their country would one day become that they would write the new constitution in their heads long before they were free.


His life was about hope. It’s what kept him going. It’s what kept his vision alive. The season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, are about hope. They are about waiting for great promise that will be manifested for us. Twenty-seven years of waiting in prison must have seemed like a very long time to wait. But, Nelson Mandela was not waiting passively. He was dreaming, planning, writing, negotiating privately, for the day he would be able to begin putting the hopes for his country, and all of its people, into place.


Advent is about waiting, but waiting actively, dreaming, planning, and working toward the day when God’s reign will come again.


The former South African president once said he was "not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying." Mr. Mandela was, indeed, an extraordinary human being. I am very glad we were able to get to South Africa this past spring. Knowing that he was still living at the time we were there and seeing evidence of his life - at Robben Island, but more importantly, in the lives of South Africans and how they are now living - was inspiring.


We mourn the loss of this exceptional person. We give thanks that he is no longer suffering. We give even more thanks that he responded to the situation in which he and many thousands of South Africans lived with tenacity, grace, courage, and dignity to help his nation become more nearly what it should be. He kept on trying, just as we are to keep on trying to come ever closer to what our community and our world ought to look like when God’s reign comes near.


Dr. Lander Bethel is pastor of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman.