New Yorkers praise Madiba

Tourists offer floral tributes near a sand sculpture of Nelson Mandela on a beach in Puri, India, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.
AP Photo

The voices of New Yorkers added to those of multitudes around the world during a service of thanksgiving for the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela who died Dec. 5 at age 95.

In song and speeches, many who yearned to praise the African who President Barack Obama described as a “liberator” had the opportunity on Dec. 11 at Riverside Church.

Inside the reputed cathedral, where the iconic freedom-fighter visited twice – first July 2, 1990 and again on his last visit here May 14, 2005 – hundreds filled the rafters for a thanksgiving service held in conjunction with the South African Consulate.

On a program that invited almost three dozen participants, everyone lavished adulations on the sole international leader to serve 27 years in prison and on release was voted commander-in-chief of the country that jailed him for treason.

“It was not a career move,” Rev. Al Sharpton said about Mandela’s back-breaking prison term at Robben Island, “There was no guarantee he would ever see the light of day.”

The preacher side of the community-activist turned MSNBC television host added: “Don’t lionize 27 years and don’t even have the courage to fight for minimum wage,” Sharpton warned.

Of Madiba, Sharpton said “he was at peace with himself.”

“They called him a red sympathizer,” he reminded the congregation.

But now “we are the ones battling, Madiba was always at peace.”

In requiem he added “you’ve walked the long walk to freedom – we are way behind you but at least we know the direction because you showed us the way.”

Sharpton’s acid admonition provided sobering reality to an evening filled with platitudes and reflections from former Mayor David N. Dinkins, Rev. Calvin O. Butts, Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. and Gina Belafonte, daughter of activist/singer/actor Harry Belafonte.

The senior pastor at the cathedral described Mandela as a prophetic conveyor who “God used to call attention to show that he is not pleased.”

Rev. Forbes surmised “all God’s children must eat at the table, they must have shelter” and for all he did and all he suffered “it was to get the attention of the entire world.”

A congregation of more than 2,000 held rapt attention listening to Rev. Forbes’ spiritual eulogy.

Forbes had campaigned for Mandela in 1990 and related how a number of his colleagues travelled to South Africa from the USA to dissuade voters from voting for the candidate to represent the African National Congress.

The Christian preachers he said told South Africans to ignore the ANC candidate and “to vote for Jesus.”

According to Rev. Forbes, he in turn had to undo their actions.

“I told them that I had spoken to the Lord and he told me if nominated he would not run and if elected he would not serve.”

The crowd cheered his technique.

“He told me that he already rules a huge kingdom.”

The senior minister of the cathedral who is temporarily serving in that position since retirement delivered pearls of wisdom and gems of knowledge which the crowd readily absorbed.

“His words should be posted on doors and remembered every day,” Belafonte said of the “comrade” and “moral leader of the world” she met at her father’s side.

“I was not born to fail,” 16-year-old poet Andromeda Small, a member of Dr. Glory’s Youth Theater at Riverside Church said. Her engaging recitation amplified the legacy Mandela gifted the world. With confidence and poetic grace she epitomized a future full of hope.

When the service ended, the bells of the Gothic Church tolled a sound echoed through Harlem and perhaps across the nation.

A special memorial tribute was also slated for the United Nations on Dec. 19.

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