Table talk with Mandela about church

Published: Thursday | December 12, 2013 Comments 0

By Devon Dick

Today, Jamaica hosts a religious memorial service at the University Chapel for Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Since Mandela's death, there has been discussion as to whether he was a Christian.

It is instructive that when Mandela made his trip to Jamaica in July 1991, he had a table talk with some clergy. The late Weeville Gordon, former custos and Anglican canon; Oliver Daley, Jamaica Council of Churches leader; Canon Ernle Gordon of St Mary's Anglican Church; C. Evans Bailey of the Methodist Church, among others, were present at this breakfast gathering with Mandela and his then wife, Winnie.

It was a table talk because it was outside the glare of the news media; it was not printed as part of the official programme and it was an informal sharing of a meal and relaxed sharing of ideas. For me, it was one of the most inspiration moments of my life to share a meal with one who did what I was not capable of doing - surviving unjust imprisonment for 27 years.

That Mandela asked for such a gathering with some clergy showed his appreciation and respect for the role that the Church played in his life and struggle. He attended Healdtown Methodist Church and benefited from attending a Methodist school. He expressed his gratitude to the South African church leaders for the role they played while in prison by their visits, prayers and encouragement.


In a documentary, Mandela was asked whether he was a Christian. He did not confirm it. Instead, he claimed it was a personal matter. It was a similar response when he and Winnie separated, when he did not publicly air what the differences were but claimed that it was a personal matter.

When Jesus the Christ was asked whether he was the Messiah, he did not give a direct answer. John asked through Jesus' disciples whether He was the Anointed One, and the response from Jesus was, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Matthew 11: 2-5). Jesus was allowing his deeds to speak louder than his claim. There is a role to judge Mandela by his works. I doubt that any of the clergy present at the table talk could claim that we have demonstrated the quality and depth of forgiveness that Mandela had.

In 2005, there was a London bombing on a train in which the child of a clergy person was senselessly and brutally killed. A year later, she resigned from her vocation because she could not forgive the killers!


In 1940, Mandela was expelled from Fort Hare University College for parti-cipating in a student strike. He was persecuted and imprisoned for 27 years because he desired freedom of all from the racist, illegitimate apartheid regime. He was denied attending his mother's funeral and his son's funeral. He was not released from prison until he was 71, an age at which most people would have already been retired. He forgave his oppressors and genuinely loved his enemies and helped to shape a new South Africa and inspire a new world. Mandela was on the USA's terrorist list until 2008. In the end, to use the phrase of the late Rex Nettleford, cultural icon, Mandela liberated the 'jailed and the jailer'. He had the rare ability to calm the fears of the few while managing the expectations of the emancipated.

One of Mandela's legacies is genuine forgiveness, not having bitterness towards others who have wronged us so that we, in turn, can experience the full life.

Mandela's life has been the living church and the table talk must continue.

Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@

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