I MET Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 50 years ago, in his jail cell on Robben Island. I was a newly ordained part-time chaplain at the prison. He was with other defendants in the Rivonia trial, named for the farm in Rivonia, outside Johannesburg, where they had been arrested on July 11, 1963. Mandela had not been with them; he was already serving a five-year sentence for leaving the country illegally and was tried with the Rivonia defendants because documents incriminating him were found at the farm.
The defendants had been flown secretly to Robben Island after being sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime of sabotage. The guards were very edgy about their new prisoners, and determined to show these "terrorists" how tough they were.
Sunday, when I visited, was their one day off from labor, but it was spent in total lockdown. I was not allowed to gather the small group for a service of worship but had to walk up and down the hallway between their cells, trying to make eye contact with each occupant as I passed. All but one member of the group had experienced mission school education, and they were at home with Christian worship. Preaching under these circumstances was tough, but I tried to leave each one with a word of encouragement. Their singing, however, couldn't be bound by iron bars, and the great hymns of the church, well known to them, echoed powerfully through the hallways, their melodies often taken up by prisoners in other cell blocks.
My memories of Nelson Mandela were of a strong, vital person in the prime of his manhood, all strength and contained energy. 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. Only once, on a very cold day, was I able to persuade a guard to let the group out into the prison yard, where we gathered in a sunny spot. That day I changed my text: "If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed," letting them choose how to spell "Son/sun." They enjoyed the joke. The guards did not.
Given these limitations, I have often felt embarrassed by being introduced as "Mandela's prison chaplain." Yet being confined to proclaiming nothing other than the heating, strengthening words of scripture, the prayers of the church and the songs of the faith required putting one's trust entirely in the power of the gospel--nothing else. A number of those in the Rivonia group, including Madiba (Mandela's traditional Xhosa clan name), told me later how much that ministry and the ministry of my successors (my security clearance was abruptly withdrawn after a few months) meant to them. Ahmed Kathrada, one of only three Rivonia defendants still living--and the only Muslim in the group--also shared how, in those early days of horror on Robben Island, that brief moment of humanity helped them all.
It was 20 years later when I next heard from Madiba. Still in prison, he used one of his precious letter-writing privileges (initially one letter every six months and later slightly more often) to congratulate me on being elected to lead the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and to express his appreciation for the care the church had shown to him through its chaplains and to Winnie, his spouse, in her banishment and suffering at the hands of the "system."
It was in that letter that he referred to his first encounter with the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg in the 1940s, when he was struck by the message outside: "The greatest glory in riving is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall." That message, he wrote with typical understatement, "tended to steel a person against the host of traumas he was to experience in later years."
After his release our paths crossed often. Probably the most special personal occasions were when I shared a platform with him in 1993 at the centenary of Gandhi's arrival in South Africa and on the first Freedom Day in 1995, when I presented him with a sculpture forged out of melted-down guns collected by Gun Free South Africa. …