It was as if Nelson Mandela had returned to Riverside Church.
Community members joined city leaders in a warm and bittersweet reflection on the former South African president’s life and legacy in the church—where Mandela spoke in 1990, just months after being released from prison—Wednesday evening.
More than a thousand people gathered in the church’s expansive nave for the ceremony, organized by Riverside Church and the South African Consulate in New York and led by Senior Minister Emeritus James Forbes, South Africa’s Ambassador to the U.N. Kingsley Mamabolo, and former mayor of New York David Dinkins.
“Words cannot console us right now. But we should take solace in knowing that Madiba lived a long and full life, renewing hope for millions of people around the world,” Dinkins said, using Mandela’s clan name to refer to the South African statesman.
“We are not here for a singular religious purpose,” the Rev. Stephen Phelps of Riverside Church said. “Rather we are here to unite under Mandela’s vision of justice and reconciliation.”
Some community leaders used the ceremony to call for further action against racial discrimination in the United States.
“Our work is not done yet,” the Rev. Calvin Butts, of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, said. “We still have stop-and-frisk. We still have an immigration policy that discriminates against the very people who helped build this nation.”
“Today we mourn, but we must also mobilize,” said Donna Katzin, executive director of Shared Interest, a New York-based nonprofit seeking to improve poor communities in South Africa. “It’s up to us to continue Mandela’s legacy.”
Bongani Smith, adorned in traditional Zulu jewelry, traveled all the way from New Jersey to attend the service at Riverside Church, which Mandela visited for the last time in 2005.
“Mandela is an icon of courage, dignity, and selflessness,” he said. “It’s only right that we honor him in this way.”
While the death of Mandela—widely known for his role in ending apartheid in his home country—marks the loss of one of the world’s most respected leaders, Mamabolo said he was optimistic about the future.
“The very fact that so many people are gathered here today is an affirmation that Mandela’s struggle was not in vain,” the ambassador said.
Also present at the event were the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, a cappella group Thokoza, and R&B singer Goapele. Their performances elicited an emotional reaction from audience members, who sang along and beat the pews to the rhythm of the music.
At the end of the ceremony, members of the Ase Drumming Circle walked through the aisles in a lively procession. The tone was more jubilant than forlorn.
“I think that’s what he [Mandela] would have wanted,” Smith said.
“This is the perfect place for the service,” Sarah Moore, an Upper West Side resident, said. “Look up at these beautiful stone arches. There is an atmosphere of reverence.”
Please visit the Spectator Archives for past coverage of Mandela's visits to Riverside Church and Morningside Heights.