Two great men who have influenced my life passed away during the past few weeks. Both are a monument of heroism, courage, perseverance, and exemplified the brightness possible within humanity. One was an international leader, an icon of freedom, human rights, equality, and peace. Another was a family friend, a keeper of warmth, humor, and joy in the face of adversity.
First, as many of us know, on Friday, December 6, 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away at 95.
In his long life he went through unimaginable hardship and sacrifices, peacefully fought and protested for the freedom of the people of South Africa, inspired non-violent revolutions in other nations and cultures, and became an international symbol of the possibility of peace.
And what do I have to say, to add to the conversation?
I did not walk through the streets of South Africa, protesting Apartheid and facing the brutality of a wall of tanks and soldiers.
I did not remain in jail for decades for standing for justice and freedom.
I did not live through the struggle to have a truly free and fair election in South Africa.
I was a child when he became President of South Africa, and was only vaguely aware of what this meant, of what the people of South Africa had gone through in order to achieve it.
I am an American citizen living in Southern California. I am able to live in a comfortable community with a car, a home, and food on my table. There are injustices and prejudices in my culture and community, but these are things which can be reasonably discussed and argued openly, without threat of incarceration or death.
This is freedom. The freedom Mandela fought for. The freedom which is sought in many nations.
Who am I to speak of who he is, except to add my voice to the millions who mourn his passing?
Most of my understanding of the great struggles of what Mandela and his fellow citizens comes from my government-subsidized university education. It began with a book titled A Force More Powerful, which traces the development and use of non-violence in the 20th century.
The main strategy of non-violent conflict is to appeal the humanity of the enemy, to remind the enemy that both sides are humans and have rights. It is founded in love for fellow man – which I believe is something appropriate to remember as we are in the midst of the Holiday season.
I think of the World War I soldiers in 1914 who were fighting in the trenches, and embraced a ceasefire in the week of Christmas. German, French, and British soldiers sang songs and played football (or, because I’m American – soccer). In one of the bloodiest wars in history, a few days were spent in harmony and brotherly love.
While this was before Mandela’s time, I think this exemplifies much of what he stood for.
Mandela has many great legacies. The message I have learned from his life is to stand up and treat the stranger as my brother, to find ways to lift others, and help others live in a world of freedom.
As I mentioned before, the second man who died is not nearly so famous. However, he exemplified the message of brotherly love as he persevered with positivity.
His name is Bob Espinoza, and he was a fellow member of my family’s congregation at church. He was a high school math teacher when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis nearly 3 decades ago. Over the years, he continued to teach and strove to be as independent as possible while using a wheelchair. It was with great reluctance that he retired early as related health complications arose.
Despite his challenges, he and his family came every week to church. My parents would joke back and forth with him, often lingering in the parking lot after the day’s meetings. He was always bright, intelligent, witty, and grinning. For a few years, he was my family’s Home Teacher, which meant he was assigned to check in on us once a month and give us a spiritual message. He came every month, with my father helping him get his wheelchair up the front porch steps. Once in our home, he would share stories and lessons with brightness and joy, happiness in his eyes. I don’t remember what those lessons were, but I remembered the warmth he brought into our home.
His wife, Donna, is a wonderful and humble woman. She has been by his side every day, helping him through his ailments while maintaining the home and family. I don’t know his oldest two children as well as I know his youngest daughter – who is a year or two older than me. Growing up, she was as bright, cheerful, and hilarious as her father. Both during his life, and this past few weeks as his passing became eminent, they bound together with great strength and lifted each other up.
While both men had an idea of the legacy they would leave behind, I don’t think any person can really fathom the influence they have on others. It is our choice in how we face our lives and the challenges that await us – And there will always be challenges. Will we face them with fear, or face them with courage, hope, and the audacity to have joy?
I believe, and I think both of these men show, that in darkness, there is always light. In fear, there is always hope. In sadness, there is always joy.
As a note, the Espinoza family has set up a fund with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to help finance research.