Riverside Church memorial serviceThe founding father of the new South Africa. The moral leader of the world. A man of profound courage and infectious joy. These are some descriptions of the man in the mind of millions around the world, with the December 5, 2013 announcement of his death. And on Wednesday evening, December 11, the life and legacy of President Nelson Mandela, also affectionately known as Madiba, was celebrated in a lengthy service at New York City’s Riverside Church.

In partnership with the New York office of the South African Consulate General, the vast and majestic Riverside Church welcomed dozens of consulate members and other special guests and dignitaries among the nearly 4,000 attendees. It was the only New York area memorial for the Nobel Peace prize laureate. Over 20 speakers were featured, and musical selections from 6 soloists, including recording artist Goapele, and the choirs Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble and the Thokoza Group lifted songs of empowerment and praise. The Ase Drumming Circle opened the service with a rousing procession of African drums.

An imam, rabbi and minister commenced the program with interfaith prayers of thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela. “We give thanks for an unforgettably great leader and for his example that we hold in history and in our hearts,” said the Rev. Julie Johnson Staples. And Riverside’s interim senior minister, the Rev. Stephen Phelps welcomed the congregation saying, as the father of his nation, Mandela refrained from speaking of his religious life in public “to gather all in, and for all souls to be united in one vision.” Messages about that vision of justice, forgiveness and freedom resounded among the programs’ many speakers.

“We heard the drums beat when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and we’re listening to those drums for him again today,” remarked Kingsley Mamabolo, Ambassador to the United States from South Africa. Former New York City mayor, the Honorable David Dinkins recalled the June 1990 arrival of Mandela to New York, four months removed from his 27-year imprisonment. Then 71, he was greeted by thousands and a red carpet at JFK airport. Exalting the stature of South Africa’s subsequently elected president, “Nelson Mandela fought the fight and now he can rest,” said Dinkins. “Service to others is the rent we pay for our time on earth. Let us not find ourselves in arrears,” he added. Donna Katzin, executive director of Shared Interest recalled Mandela’s triumphant “toyi-toyi” dance up the center aisle of Riverside Church that summer. “His lessons and legacy are as important today, and we must mobilize to overcome injustice and poverty on our continuing long walk to freedom,” she said.

The “Good News of Deliverance” from Isaiah 61 was proclaimed by the Rev. P. Kimberleigh Jordan, Ph.D., followed by the congregational singing of the revered hymn “Amazing Grace.” Speakers continued with Dr. Anthony Marx, president of the New York City library recalling the way Mandela danced at his April 1994 election — the first time he and many of his people voted. “There was no trace of irony in his face when his former oppressors saluted his presidency,” said Marx. Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts expressed conviction that Mandela deeply believed in God. Upholding the transformation of other jailed leaders — from St. Paul to Martin Luther King, “More powerful than justice is the notion of forgiveness,” said Butts.

Representing her singer/actor and activist father Harry Belafonte, filmmaker and activist Gina Belafonte reminisced about meeting Mandela and quoted the freedom fighter as saying he would not and could not give in to despair because he was fundamentally an optimist. And 16 year-old student Andromeda Smalls emphatically recited a poem with a refrain “I am not in this world to fail!”

A litany of commitment, adapted from Mandala’s 1990 first visit to the U.S. and Riverside was read responsively by church leaders and attendees. It was followed by a video capturing Mandela’s visits to Manhattan along with his words, “Thank you New York and Riverside Church for your role in the building of our nation.”

Further speakers during the service included Egyptian-American Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, the Rev. Michael Walrond, senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network. Stating the adage that a nation divided against itself cannot stand, Imam Rauf commended Mandela’s institution of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “With patience and perseverance, President Mandela had to simultaneously liberate the whites from their fears,” said Rauf.

“God gave us a son of the soil of South Africa who demonstrated an ability to endure hardship. And as a transcendent leader he brought healing to others,” said Rev. Walrond. “At a time when people are consumed with dysfunctional arrogance and cynicism, Nelson Mandela reminds us to have a hunger for healing,” added Walrond.

Reflecting upon South Africa’s collective struggle, Rev. Sharpton said “Don’t celebrate Nelson Mandela if you’re not willing to fight for the principles he stood for — like a living wage.” “We are the ones still battling between materialism and spiritualism and we will follow your direction. You are already at peace,” he added.

In his closing eulogy, Riverside’s senior minister emeritus the Rev. Dr. James Forbes said Nelson Mandela led his nation to stop compartmentalizing people racially, and promoted the equality of women. Referencing the 4th verse of Isaiah 55, Rev. Forbes declared that “God made Nelson Mandela to be a witness to his people and used him because God had something to say through him, like other prophets.” As the U.S. and other nations are dealing with economic deprivation the issue has shifted from racial separation to economic strife, Forbes affirmed. “Nelson Mandela reminds us that all God’s children must have a place at the table,” he added.

To conclude, the South African Consul General Georges Monyemangene acknowledged “the deep gratitude of the people of South Africa for the Riverside Church, as we mourn President Nelson Mandela,” and the program ended as it began with the exuberant beating of the drums.