18 July 2013

Even though his home in Transkei is some distance from here, home is where the heart is and his heart has circled the globe.  Wherever he has traveled, he has brought us his hope and courage… and received, in return, our gratitude, our admiration and our respect.

And we who love him come together today to send our best wishes to President Mandela on the anniversary of his birth and to join his children, his grandchildren, and that most amazing woman who has stood alongside him these past 15 years, Graca Machel in praying for his full recovery.

Perhaps once in a generation a man, a movement, and a moment come together on a mission for freedom that is so powerful, so courageous, so just that all the guns and dogs, hatred and violence, deprivation and force that can be mustered cannot turn them back.  It has been our good fortune that this moment has come within our lifetimes, and a great blessing that it has come in the person of Nelson Mandela.

His release from prison meant so much to us, and how sweet that victory was when, after more than 27 years behind bars, he walked out of his cell.  He entered that cell a prisoner, but exited those walls and stepped onto the world stage, a free man – recognized and embraced in every nation as a leader in the global fight for freedom.

New Yorkers were among the first to welcome his as our own personal champion when people of all races and ethnic groups showered with the ticker-tape in the Canyon of Heroes this City reserves for the very few.  From East New York to East Harlem to the Upper East Side Manhattan, freedom-loving people lined the streets, four- and five-deep to catch a glimpse as he traveled through the City.

This was an historic time about which we dreamed, but it was also one for which may gave their last measure.  Under the leadership of President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu and his fellow architects of the peaceful reconciliation deserve great credit for the wisdom, courage and foresight that set the new nation on the path to coexistence.  Only visionaries such as these, together with many courageous white South Africans, could have conceived of such revolutionary resolution.  This was a victory for all South Africans, a lesson for the world, and causes me to believe that there will yet be peace in the Middle East.

It has been more than 20 years since Joyce and I hosted President Mandela at Gracie Mansion and eight years since we last saw each other at Riverside Church.  Nevertheless, as those of you who have had the privilege of spending time with Madiba over the years can attest, the man whose heart holds no bitterness and whose mind seeks no revenge.  His intentions have been clear and consistent – whether at play with my grandchildren or debating Ted Koppel on international television.  His heart and mind have been set on greater goals – the end of poverty and suffering in this world.

President Mandela has described the prison of poverty as ranking alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils, and has called upon us all to end global poverty, saying that “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity… it is an act of justice.”

Nelson Mandela has embodied the spirit of nearly a century of struggle, has taught the lesson of endurance, and has extended an open hand to those who have recognized the righteousness of reconciliation and a closed fist to those who have chosen a different course.  And now, a world in crisis and thirsty for leaders who value humanity and harmony pauses to recognized this man… this man who was the essence of heroism.

We might be reminded today of the words of the ANC freedom song that pays homage to Chief Luthuli.  “We are,” it says, “the soldiers of Luthuli.  Wherever we may be, we pledge to bear witness to the nobility of our cause.”  At this moment in history, and as long as there are people who hold dear the principles to which Nelson Mandela has dedicated his life, we can proudly say that “We are the soldiers of Madiba.”

And, as I say to him every year this at this time, “Happy Birthday, Madiba! When you are 109, I will be 100,,, and we will meet and toast each other!”  With God’s grace, we are aiming to do just that!