Parliament of the World’s Religions: Heroism embodied in Mandela, King

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Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell recalled how her granddaughter was asking her family for help in learning about civil rights activist Martin Luther King, when her family told her that she should ask her grandmother instead, because she knew King.

In this April 2, 1965 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., second from right, speaks at a news conference next to John Lewis, to his left, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Baltimore. Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell invited King to speak at the entirely white church congregation during the Civil Rights era.
In this April 2, 1965 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr., second from right, speaks at a news conference next to John Lewis, to his left, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Baltimore. Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell invited King to speak to an entirely white church congregation during the Civil Rights era. (Associated Press)

The child quickly responded with disbelief at her grandmother’s friendship by saying, “No. He’s in history.”

Campbell described that for children today, King seems as distant in history as George Washington did when she was her granddaughter’s age.

“We revere these people, and they are to be revered,” said Campbell about people who participated in religious movements. “They gave us an enormous amount of strength to who we are, but they were real. They were genuine. They were loving people.”

At the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, three people of faith from three separate generations recalled their personal experiences involving religious movements.

Creating a religious movement requires years of sacrifice from multiple individuals and overcoming multifaceted obstacles. Often these sacrifices may include time in prison, injury or death.

At the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Campbell along with Eboo Patel and Allan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed Church cleric, politician and anti-apartheid activist, recalled and discussd their personal experiences involving religious movements.

Patel, who has established interfaith youth projects around the world and is a member of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships, described how the future of the interfaith community lies in the hands of young people.

He said youth ages 16 to 24 are ripe for identity formation, noting how King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protests at the age of 20.

“The 21st Century is going to need a critical mass of interfaith leaders if we want to have a world in which the relationships between people who are different religiously are characterized by bridges instead of barriers,” said Patel.

Boesak echoed the importance of young people in religious movements, describing the deaths of South African youth fighting against apartheid.

People in religious movements do not participate in such activities for themselves, but for the freedom and benefit of later generations, according to Boesak. He said those who make sacrifices for others are the seeds to a tree that will provide shade for future generations, God willing.

“Hope, once embraced, will never die,” said Boesak. “That’s what we have in our young people and that’s what we learn from them.”

 In this May 10, 1994, file photo, Nelson Mandela dances at a celebration concert in Pretoria, South Africa, following his inauguration as the country's first black president. Rev. Dr. Joan Brown recalled his humor during time she spent as an escort to Mandela in the United States. (Associated Press)
In this May 10, 1994, file photo, Nelson Mandela dances at a celebration concert in Pretoria, South Africa, following his inauguration as the country’s first black president. Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell recalled his humor during time she spent as a host to him in the United States. (Associated Press)

In addition to King, Campbell also described how civil rights activist Nelson Mandela held a special place in her heart.

President Bill Clinton once asked her to accompany Mandela to a special event. Mandela was not formally honored because he had not yet been elected president of South Africa.

Campbell described how several beautiful women approached Mandela to hug and kiss him. After multiple displays of affection by different women, she asked Mandela if he was tired of the attention.

Mandela responded; “Are you kidding me? I was in prison for a long time, if you do anything to get these women to not come and kiss me, that’ll be it.”

Campbell said it is important for her to share these types of stories about prominent individuals in spiritual movements because she believes that they were not made to be heroes. Rather, they were people who wanted to achieve the same goals as everyone else, but were pulled into heroic roles.

“My father said to me, ‘God intends you to do something special, so remember my child, dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose. Dare to make it known.’”

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