Commentary

The fingerprints of history

The news report caught my attention: “Nelson Mandela is dead at 95.” A feeling of grief and tears welled up in me just like days when others who were active in their work for peace with justice were grievously lost. I feel pain in knowing his life has ended. He was a wounded healer who had the vision, love, and patience to keep on keeping on until he literally changed the world. Nelson Mandela is a worldwide legend that we have had the privilege to experience in our time.

Although I never met or shook hands with Nelson Mandela, he touched me … deeply. He was an icon for the cause of freedom. And I came to learn a good bit about him through some Lutheran and ecumenical connections over the years.

James Siefkes

James Siefkes

The Rev. Joseph Barndt, a colleague and mentor when I was with the American Lutheran Church, has long been a specialist in anti-racism in the United States, Germany, and South Africa. With help from the Lutheran World Federation, he was able to travel to South Africa several times. He collaborated there with another anti-apartheid leader and churchman, Dr. Wolfram Kistner, who had become the Minister of Peace and Justice for the South African Council of Churches (SACC) under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Barndt came back to the U.S. to arrange a visit and tour for Kistner, giving him a chance to tell the story of apartheid to an American audience. He hoped to generate support for the anti-apartheid movement from U.S. churches and anti-apartheid groups.

Two obstacles were in the ways of this trip — funding for travel and permission from the South African government for Kistner to leave. I had funding through the ALC program budget to cover costs. It probably didn’t hurt his chances that Kistner was a Lutheran with strong ties in Germany. With the possible greasing of the wheel by ALC Division director Jim Bergquist, Kistner was given passage. He came to the U.S. and did a wonderful job of telling his story and building support for ending South African apartheid.

It felt personal to hear the litany from South Africa: of the assassination of Steve Biko, Tutu’s leadership in the SACC, Kistner’s role as Minister of Peace and Justice, the seemingly impossible release of Mandela, and more.

So, as we hear of the death of Nelson Mandela, we can know that in the freedom struggle in South Africa, American Lutherans had some fingerprints on the effort. And, even in death, Mandela’s mark is being highlighted around the world and his work keeps keeping on.

 

James Siefkes, a third-generation Lutheran pastor, is the retired director of mission discovery for the Division of Outreach of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a member of Edina Community Lutheran Church, Edina, Minnesota.

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