Grace church today. He is in town for the summer, staying with his daughter and son in law, who now live in Providence.
He gave a talk before the service. Robby is a white South African who was a civil servant of the apartheid system for decades before something happened that caused him to realize that apartheid was wrong. He simultaneously heard the call to the priesthood and left his job to enter seminary. I asked him how the shift in consciousness happened. It seemed to us outsiders that it was incredibly sudden and shockingly peaceful. No one, I said, who was watching from afar believed it could happen without violence.
"It was prayer," he replied. "It is my only explanation. It was a miracle. We were praying and the world was praying too."
I am not sure why I cannot talk about South Africa without weeping. Perhaps it is because I really do believe that it was a miracle. One that we all witnessed in our lifetimes. A miracle that none of us expected.
When I was 18 years old, I spent the summer in New York City working at an ice cream shop on Christopher Street. One of my coworkers was a Dutch South African named Adolph. He was, without a doubt, the most racist person I ever met.
His explanation for the necessity of apartheid was that the blacks were just too damned stupid to run the country. It would be a complete disaster to give the government over to them, he said. He would imitate how they talked. He would laugh at the idea of his house servants having a vote. I was young, which meant I had no restraint whatsoever, and told him in no uncertain terms that he was a racist pig. I left the job and never heard of Adolph again. But I never forgot him, especially when, 6 years later, the townships started rioting and we caught whiffs of the black on black violence going on. It's insurmountable, I thought. It is impossible. With people like Adolph at the helm, it can't possibly change without devastating violence.
But then, a couple of years later, the shift began to happen. Mandela was released. Elections were scheduled and the world watched in tense wonder as thousands upon thousands of black South Africans lined up to vote for the first time in their lives. The world held it's breath for the violence that really never came.
And then, we watched as the Truth and Reconciliation commission began to lift the lid on the pain and darkness that was hiding beneath the surface. Horror stories. Petty bureaucrats and their petty abuses. The slow unraveling of the system that knitted the whole country into a dysfunctional mantle of anger and fear. The confessions. The absolution.
I remember hearing Archbishop Tutu on the radio, once. I listened as he described the process that was helping to heal his broken nation. This, I thought, is a Holy man. This is a man who is teaching others to put Christ's forgiveness in action. This was long before my own conversion. But even then, as confused as I was, I recognized a miracle when I saw one.
There is still much damage in South Africa. The priest today said that there is something of a vacuum left at the end of apartheid, because it permeated every element of the society and government. So yes, there is terrible economic disparity, health crisis, social problems, and all the rest. We must continue to pray for healing for South Africa.
We must continue to pray, but we have much to be grateful for. And awed by.