When Nelson Mandela Came to Dinner
One of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as a bishop was a few years ago when the Council of Bishops went to Mozambique. One evening Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his wife, Graca Machel, who live in the capital of Mozambique–in fact, just down the road from where we were staying–came to dinner.
His wife, Graca Machel, had been invited to speak and she told her story of being educated in a Methodist school. She was truly impressive as a leader in her own right, having taken the country of Mozambique from almost complete illiteracy to a high level of literacy.
At her encouragement following her presentation, Nelson Mandela got up to address us. I have to say that he had become rather frail and sometimes lost his place in his own thoughts, but he radiated power and goodness. He started telling an old joke which he seemed to have appropriated as a description for his life. It took him 3 attempts but in the end it went something like this:
He’s getting up in years and one day he knows he’ll go to the Pearly Gates. When he gets there, an angel will ask him his name. And he will say, “Madiba,” which is his name in his own language. Then the angel looks through the list and says, “I don’t see your name on the list.” Mandela asks him to look again. The angel looks again and still can’t find Mandela’s name on the list.
Then the angel politely apologizes to him and instructs him that since his name isn’t on the list, he needs to go “down the hall;” in other words to the “other place” where people go after this life. As he tells the story, it’s obvious that he thinks this is very funny because he says, “Fine, I’ll go down the hall to the other place…and I will do there what I did here (on earth).” I took that to mean that he would “organize hell.”
It was an appropriated joke but in it was a message that I have since cherished. No matter where we find ourselves–even in the hells of injustice, prison, oppression–we can do something to organize it to become a place of justice, freedom and peace.
A great man has died but don’t think he’ll be sent down the hall to do there what he did here…I think he counts on us to do that.