The world is grieving the loss of one of its brightest shining stars today. A script-writer could not have improved on the story of Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for a third of his life and then ascending to the presidency of his country.
As I listen to the various commentators the morning after, I am reminded time and again of my personal experience with a man, also of dark skin, who spent half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
I hear statements that tell how Mr. Mandela touched lives around the world.
And I hear questions like: How could a man in prison for 27 years come out without being bitter?
I've been blessed to meet two men who had similar experiences. Both were named Carter. And as in the Mandela case, racism was involved.
Rubin Hurricane Carter, wrongly convicted not just once, but twice, told me that one day he looked in an old, cracked mirror in the prison and saw the reflection of a man he didn't even know. It was the portrait of a bitter and angry individual. He said that he made the decision right then to change, because "if I remained angry," he said, "they would be the winner, and I couldn't allow that to happen." Dr. Carter turned out to be one of the most warm and charming individuals I have ever met. He, too, touched lives around the world.
Maurice Henry Carter was something else. This indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, was arrested and imprisoned here in Michigan for a crime he didn't commit, and he was not a model prisoner for the first period of his incarceration. Would you be?
But he also told me that midway through his time in prison he made the decision to bury hatred, and try to turn his wrongful conviction into something positive. Unbeknownst to me, God used even me to help him change his attitude. When I joined his fight for freedom, nine years before his release, he realized that there could be people who care and that God had not abandoned him.
Maurice was in prison for 29 years...two years longer than Nelson Mandela. He didn't have the name recognition of a world leader, but I'm proud to say that before he died in 2004 he, too, touched lives---many, many of them---all around the world!
The sad thing is that we don't seem to listen to people like Mandela, Carter and Carter...and we don't seem to learn from them.
South Africa may be making progress, but here in this country, leadership by our first African American president has driven a segment of our population into a frenzy. And our government is taking steps backward to once again make it more difficult for people of color to vote. We also imprison an amazingly imbalanced number of young African American men.
I hear, through Mandela and Carter and Carter, these words of Jesus: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
We still have a lot to learn.