For three speakers who gathered for a panel discussion at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty on a snowy Wednesday evening, memories of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement were more than news headlines.
They were personal.
They spoke to a crowd of about 100 at the seminary in an event in honor of the late anti-apartheid leader, who emerged from 27 years in prison to became the first black president of a post-apartheid South Africa and an international symbol of reconciliation. Mr. Mandela died Thursday at age 95.
The Rev. R. Drew Smith recalled a gathering of the World Council of Churches in 1998 -- when all eyes were on the South African president -- and Mr. Mandela greeted Rev. Smith's wife and held up their infant child. It was "a way of President Mandela signaling his humility," recalled Rev. Smith, professor of urban ministry at the seminary. "All the attention is on him, and he'd rather have the attention on this baby."
The Rev. Johannes Swart, professor of world mission and evangelism, is a native of South Africa who said he had to reject the racist system of apartheid, which gave a privileged position to whites such as himself. By visiting the impoverished townships where blacks were restricted, "my conversion came about when I was exposed to the 'other' that I never grew up with."
He praised Mr. Mandela for hope-inducing actions that embraced whites in the new majority-ruled South Africa. That included inviting Rev. Swart at one point to join with other clergy to pray with him.
"There was a second chance for the Afrikaner people," Rev. Swart said. "There was a second chance for me."
Rev. Smith and the third panelist, the Rev. Harold Lewis, said they became active against apartheid partly through the effects of visiting the nation and seeing racial separation and the black poverty and oppression.
Rev. Lewis, rector emeritus of Calvary Episcopal Church, which overlaps East Liberty and Shadyside, said the use of economic sanctions to pressure South Africa was nothing more than an extension of the tactics of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of the 1950s, the first major civil-disobedience campaign led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"When you hit people in their pocketbooks, sometimes their theology changes, too," Rev. Lewis said.
The program featured rousing gospel songs performed by the Voices of Judah Choir of Bidwell Street United Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Smith noted that Mandela loved to sing and listen to music. "Nothing else could happen tonight that would be a greater honor" than the music offered by the choir, he said.
One young adult asked the panelists what he could do to start working for justice.
"We start where we are," Rev. Smith said. "If we pay attention ... we'll see the needs."
Peter Smith: 412-263-1416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.