They said he was a man of biblical stature, a Gideon, a David, and a “sagacious, smiling statesman.” They mourned his passing, but gave thanks for his life.
Beneath the vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows of Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday, a throng of admirers assembled to say goodbye to former South African president Nelson Mandela.
The occasion was a local celebration of Mandela, even as his body rested in state 8,000 miles away in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. He died last Thursday at age 95 and is to be buried Sunday in his ancestral village.
Vice President Biden headed the solemn yet joyous three-hour memorial service at the English Gothic cathedral in Northwest Washington.
The service, held in conjunction with the South African Embassy, began at 11 a.m. as a host of dignitaries, elected officials and civil rights leaders gathered on a chilly morning under blue skies, as the cathedral flag flew at half-mast.
The service featured readings from the Bible and the Koran. A poem by Maya Angelou was also read to the gathering. It described Mandela as a “David armed with a mere stone, facing down the mighty Goliath . . . emerging triumphant . . . our great courageous man.”
Donna Katzin, executive director of Shared Interest, an organization that helps the poor of South Africa, read fitting lines from the Old Testament’s Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and . . . you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
Music included national and hand-clapping civil rights anthems, a Zulu prayer and a Bob Dylan folk song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sung by Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey of the former folk trio of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Opera singer Jessye Norman sang “Amazing Grace.”
The cathedral’s thunderous organ played hymns, its bourdon bell tolled, and choirs from the United States and South Africa sang.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., called Mandela “man of biblical stature.”
Imam Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, prayed: “Lord of the world, thank you for providing us Nelson Mandela. . . . Oh tranquil soul, return to your Lord pleased and accepted.”
Biden called Mandela “a truly, truly extraordinary man . . . [who taught that] trust is possible, reconciliation is possible, justice is possible, change can come.”
“May we always remember a man who did what seemed impossible,” Biden said.
Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said: “We’ve only begun to struggle. . . . We have nothing yet to celebrate.”
He added, “I hear [Mandela] saying, ‘We showed you the way. Just keep on marching.’ ”
And William Lucy, president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said of Mandela:
“I bid you farewell, my friend. The world is not a perfect place. But it is a better place because you lived.”