“Nelson Mandela’s day is done,” lamented the poet Maya Angelou of the news long expected, long dreaded.

He began life as a shepherd boy, born in 1918 in the lush green pastoral village of Qunu, South Africa. At his death nearly a century later, he was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the most venerated men on earth.

On Wednesday, December 11, official Washington came to the National Cathedral to celebrate the life, legacy, and values of the former South African president and human rights leader. The national memorial service was offered in partnership with the Embassy of South Africa to the United States and made possible by additional support from TransAfrica; the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; and Islamic Relief USA. The District of Columbia also provided logistical support.

Gathered under the Cathedral’s soaring arches, barely begun when Mandela was born, were Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.; Secretary of State John F. Kerry; members of Congress and the Judiciary; diplomatic representatives of many nations and organizations; leaders of the human rights movements in America and the world—and children born into “the cool, refreshing breeze of freedom,” in Maya Angelou’s poetic phrase.

He Dreamed the World Another Way

Winston Churchill, the British lion who stands astride twentieth-century history, said of his 1940 summons to serve as wartime prime minister at the age of 65 that he “felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

A similar lifetime of preparation preceded Nelson Mandela’s election at the age of 76 as the first black president of South Africa after spending a third of his life in prison for fighting the brutal, racist Afrikaner regime. After his release in 1990, the power of his stunning act of forgiveness and reconciliation with his warders enabled Mandela to guide his nation in dismantling apartheid and ushering in a democratically elected government. After serving one term as president of South Africa he relinquished power, setting a precedent like George Washington as father of his country.

Mandela’s three-hour-and ten-minute interfaith memorial service was solemn yet celebratory, even boisterous. Colorful flowers native to South Africa filled the Cathedral. Five choirs participated, including the Washington Performing Arts Society Children of the Gospel Choir, the Pacific Boychoir, South African Community Choir, Morgan State University Choir, and the Cathedral Choir.

Well-known names from the worlds of jazz, traditional African music, and folk music performed during the hour-long musical prelude, among them Sweet Honey in the Rock and Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), who led the congregation in Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Sung calls to prayer and spoken prayers from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions were interspersed by the somber tolling of the Cathedral’s Bourdon bell. The presentation of colors of South Africa and the United States was followed by their respective national anthems sung by two members of the Cathedral Choir—Roger Isaacs, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, and well-known countertenor; and Lucie Shelley, a Cathedral girl chorister and student at the National Cathedral School for Girls.

“It Ain’t over until God Says It’s Done”

Vice President Biden delivered the official tribute on behalf of the United States, saluting Mandela as “the most impressive man or woman I’ve ever met.” He recalled his introduction as a young senator to the shocking realities of apartheid. When he deplaned in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the only Caucasian member of an otherwise all-black congressional delegation, Afrikaner soldiers attempted to usher him firmly to the right while his colleagues were directed to a separate entrance on the left. The delegation refused to be separated by color.

Tributes from more than a dozen participants followed. Among the icons of the American civil rights era were Ambassador Andrew Young, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was killed; Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, whose “No Easy Walk to Freedom” Yarrow wrote for anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy in which the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, sixth Episcopal bishop of Washington, participated.

Representing a much younger generation, Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica, the African-American foreign policy organization founded during the anti-apartheid movement, asked what Mandela’s legacy would mean for someone like her, who was only thirteen when he was freed from prison. “Recognizing that one person can make a difference when working for a collective good, summoning the courage to take on the most powerful forces on the planet, and fighting tenaciously for the victims of global apartheid, whether in Soweto, Port au Prince, the barrios of East Los Angeles or the blighted neighborhoods of Detroit,” Lee said in answer to her own question, “this is how we honor and fulfill Madiba’s legacy.”

The Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University, delivered the homily from the Canterbury pulpit where Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon. A South African Dutch Reformed Church clergyman, politician, and anti-apartheid activist, Dr. Boesak was close personally and professionally to Mandela. As he traced the arc of Mandela’s “long walk to freedom,” he frequently interjected the rousing refrain from Maurette Brown-Clark’s song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done.”

Make Us Instruments of Your Peace

His Excellency Ebrahim Rasool, Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa, said that American flags flying at half-staff (an honor first accorded Churchill) showed that Americans felt Mandela was part of their history and their future. He then introduced surprise guest Jessye Norman to sing Amazing Grace. The American opera star’s appearance marked forty-five years since her first professional engagement, singing Handel’s Messiah with the Cathedral Choral Society.

In her closing prayer, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde asked God to “let a portion of his mantle rest upon all of us, upon all people.” Vincent Gray, mayor of the District of Columbia, led the congregation in the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s blessing bid the people “go in peace, be peace, make peace.”

As the assemblage poured out of the Cathedral into a cold December wind, they departed encouraged, empowered, and ennobled by the life of Nelson Mandela—this son of Africa and father of a nation, whose radiant smile, Dr. Boesak remembered, was “like an African early morning sun.”