Today we made a pilgrimage to Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where hundreds of resisters were incarcerated during the years of apartheid. Of course, the prisoner who is perhaps most well-known in the international community is Nelson Mandela, although here in South Africa there are many many many names which are also known and revered as heroes of that era.
I say “pilgrimage” because it was an experience unlike a typical tour in which a group is led by a guide who shares the facts of the place. We were hosted by Richard’s church, St. George’s Cathedral, and by Deon Snyman, the director of The Restitution Foundation. St. George’s has developed a liturgy of sorts for visiting groups to use as they walk around the island; it combines biblical readings from the Gospels, as well as prayers and meditative reflections.
As we walked the island, we stopped to read and reflect at points of significance—the rocky shore, near the docks, which looks back at the mainland; the leper graveyard, where many are buried from the era when Robben Island was a place to which people with leprosy, mental illness and other stigmatized infirmities were exiled; the main door of the prison building where hundreds of resisters to apartheid were incarcerated until apartheid’s end in the early 90s. We ended at the Church of the Good Shepherd, an Anglican
chapel on the island. There we reflected upon what we had seen, heard, felt, and thought, and we shared in Communion.
As I walked the paths between buildings and sites which are now deserted and empty, I thought again and again, “I am walking where Nelson Mandela walked.” It struck me that Robben Island is a type of holy land, like Palestine is for so many pilgrims who visit there each year to walk where it is said that Jesus walked, and where the ancients of the Abrahamic family lived and struggled and hoped.
And here is Robben Island today. A sacred place in its own right, where the stories of hope and perseverance live on, and where the soil bears the imprint of saints who have gone before those of us who walk there today.
I think that Jesus would probably visit Robben Island if he were here today. And that Christ certainly does all the time….
Because we were a private tour group, we were privileged to wander a bit at each place we stopped. In the cell block, we walked the hallway silently, reading the signs posted in various cells with memories from the people who had been imprisoned there. On a whim, I entered one of the 4×5 foot cells—I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside, from a prisoner’s perspective. I turned and closed the door, and stood against the back wall, looking out through the bars into the hallway. It was then that I noticed that there was a photograph of the last prisoner to occupy that cell—Antonio du Preez. I got chills when I noticed that he and I were born the same year, and I thought about was doing with my life in the 80s and 90s, over in the United States, while he was here doing resistance work. During his years on Robben Island, 1986-1991, I graduated from college, worked at first teaching job, then volunteered as a youth minister in the U.S. and West Africa, then moved to Minnesota, where I’ve lived for over 20 years now. All of that—while Antonio du Preez was looking across the water toward home, walking in the prison yard, working in the blinding lime pits, living within a community of resistance, and standing against evil in a 4×5 foot cell.
Both lives significant, both working for good in the world. For me, those years were the beginning of the journey through and beyond boundaries of limited possibility, egocentric worldview, and untested theology, toward a more expansive perspective made possible by experience, relationships, and time. A journey that led me finally to seminary, at just the right time in my life, and that now has led me here. Standing in Antonio du Preez’s cell today felt like a kairos moment: a “thin place,” to borrow from Celtic theology, where the veil between the Divine and us becomes thin, and one experiences something holy. I felt the accompanying presence of this person whose individual sacrifice so many years ago was part of a movement of persons toward a hope that they could not see, but could only imagine. And so, living in that imagination, they believed it into being.
On the wall of his cell, there was a bit of text in which Antonio recalled of his first experiences when he landed on Robben Island. I want to share it with you so that you too can “meet” Antonio as I did:
I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was going to spend fifteen and a half years on Robben Island. That was the one thing that was driving me a bit nuts.
A week after our arrival there, this old man came past and shook everybody’s hand on the bench. We were about six people sitting on the bench, and he introduced himself to everybody with a smile on his face. I was right on the end, and he said to me, “How are you, comrade?”
“I am very well.”
He said, “You don’t look so well. Don’t be so angry, man, relax. How long are you going to be with us?”
“Fifteen and a half years.”
He said, “Oh, that’s enough time for me to get to know you, so we will talk later.”
And with a big smile, off he went to the garden to potter with some plants and stuff.
The guys said, “Hey, do you know who’s that?”
I said, “No, who’s that?”
“That’s one of the treason trialists, Elias Motsoaledi.”
That was a turning point for me. I was born in ’64 and that old man had been in prison during my whole lifetime. I had no reason to be angry. If an old man could do it with such positive spirits, I was being unreasonable. My whole attitude changed towards my sentence and my stay there actually changed. I had not done anything wrong. I was proud of what I’d done.
Thanks to all who are following the blog, sending emails and msgs from home, and joining us on this amazing experience! Karen has been sharing your posts from the blog, and they bring many smiles to us as we reflect on our days here and our loved ones at home.