Tuesday, October 21, 2014

From the Halls of Power to the Fortress Tower, Not a Stone Will be Left on Stone…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me—For God has anointed me to preach the Good News to the poor; God has sent me to proclaim ‘the captives are set free….”  Luke 4

We boarded the catamaran, bound for Robben Island, a place of imprisonment and torture for Nelson Mandela and countless captives through the years of Apartheid.  For decades, political prisoners were forced to travel this three mile ocean journey, shackled, tossed in the dark bowels of the ship, their final pilgrimage, surrounded by guards with guns, told their feet would never touch the mainland again. 

Refreshed by sea salt air and the splendor of Table Mountain to our backs, we were surrounded by high school students, dubbed “the born frees,” having never known Apartheid, chattering to one another in Afrikaans, iPhones opened to Facebook, texting friends about their history lesson field trip.

“You picked a good day for this journey—I’ve been on this boat hundreds of times, one of the clearest views I can remember,”  Eddie Daniels, our personal guide tells me as the boat slows and docks on the Island, just south of the gift shop and adjacent to the sandwich bar.  “It used to be an emotional journey for me, but I’ve been enough times that it’s been transformed.  I’m free!  This place doesn’t hold me or anyone else any longer.”

Boarding our tour bus, Eddie, 85, slightly unsteady on his feet but his mind still filled with a lifetime of experiences, begins telling us of his first days of imprisonment on the island:  “They locked us up in concrete cells, no human contact.  The only food given to us through a slot in the door.  We lost track of the months, forgotten.”

When political pressure forced the prison to remove the men from solitary confinement, they began work in the limestone quarries, breaking up rock for 12 hours a day.

“We would teach one another—those who knew the classics would tell about the great philosophers of history.  Men who knew Shakespeare recited plays—we taught one another while we chipped away at the stone.  No one could take away our ability to learn and teach.”

The limestone dust would fill their bodies, damage their lungs, coating their throat, eyes, even blocking their tear drops. 

"Some men had tear ducts blocked so badly we can't even shed tears anymore; our eyes are damaged forever."

Steadying himself on the rocky, broken ground, Eddie takes my arm.  Leaning toward me, a secret to tell, he whispers, "They even tried to take away our tears...but see! We don't need tears now--they have been wiped away--we have joy...all this,” his free arm outstretched, sweeping across the island, “All this is transformed. We don't need tears. For we have joy...and they can never take away our joy…it is ours forever.”

Making our way back to the prison block, Eddie pulls out the key to Nelson Mandela’s cell.  “They gave me the key, imagine that!”  His eyes twinkle, nearly disappearing as a smile engulfs his face.

He held the key—the key which once tried to lock away life.  The key--now not powerless, but transformed.  Walking, frail, unsteady, yet knowing, Eddie led us to the hall, the dungeon, which was his home from 15 years.  Rock quarry dust still clung to the corners of his former prison, but no longer to his clothes.  His hand, reaching for the lock, iPhones and cameras swarm to capture the prisoner unlocking the prison.

“Here it is—it used to be a heavy place, one of pain, remembering the fear.  But now—go, go in, see,” gently pressing us into Mandela’s cell, “See it.  See our history, it’s transformed.”  Mental bars creaking, he closes us inside.

Walking down the hall, past dozens of empty cells, up a set of stairs, he reaches for my arm, steady.  Arm in arm with me, the once imprisoned walks out of this place, his hand grasping mine, the key pressing into my palm. 

“Let’s go outside now.  To freedom.  To transformation.  Don’t keep it here,” thumping his chest, “Send it out here,” sweeping his arm toward the students, the ocean, the open world in front of us.

“My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn….”

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