It wasn’t Dr. William M. Campbell Jr.’s first trip to South Africa, but it may have been the most special.
His weeklong mission trip coincided with memorial services for Nelson Mandela, the greatly admired former South African president, who died Dec. 5 at age 95. Campbell, pastor of Anderson Chapel AME Church in Killeen, along with his wife and youth minister, traveled to Durban, South Africa, to work with the 19th Episcopal district of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
From the moment the trio exited customs in the airport Dec. 9, they were overwhelmed with Mandela tributes of great magnitudes.
“I can confidently say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — 102 world leaders, a whole nation, mobilized to pay tribute and to honor one of the greatest leaders that I’ll see in my lifetime,” Campbell said. “It immediately enlarges your sense of the global value that (Mandela) had for people all over the world.”
Campbell lectured at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, having “heartfelt and warm and loving
conversations with Hindus, Muslims and Christians,” everywhere he went.
This spirit is typical of South Africans, Campbell said, but on this visit, it was amplified in a way that was nearly overwhelming.
“Everywhere you went, light posts, banners, wall-size building murals, billboards, everything was like, wow,” he said. “Everybody was mourning his loss and celebrating his life at the same time.”
Campbell attended a memorial for Mandela in Durban on Dec. 13, the stadium packed with nearly 50,000 people.
“There was a sense of world community that makes you relate to people in spite of your own ethnic or cultural or religious beliefs.”
Campbell’s wife, Detra Campbell, had the opportunity to interact with women and children traveling around Durban and Johannesburg.
“You could just feel (Mandela’s) presence by what he meant to the people,” she said, describing the trip as life-changing.
For Anderson Chapel’s minister to youth, Desmond Thomas, his first trip to South Africa was above and beyond his expectations. His work included teaching a class regarding the ways in which the church can reach out to youth.
Thomas found that many of the ideas put forth by South Africans mirrored the concerns of Americans, emphasizing the universality of the congregation.
“It was amazing, just to see how much the people really respected (him) and (his) struggle,” Thomas said of Mandela.
“There was always something new about what he did, what he meant to somebody, and what he meant to the nation as a whole.”
The theme that was most prevalent among the countless tributes to Mandela’s life was forgiveness, William Campbell said.
“President Mandela’s capacity to forgive the very people who wrongfully imprisoned him for 27 years and come out and say let’s work together,” was something the world may not see again soon, he said.
“His life demonstrated, emanated and articulated forgiveness. The principle of forgiveness and his capacity to do that is why the world stopped to ... honor this leader.”