David Jones: Games and Grace

Back in 1991, when Billy Payne asked our Bishop to name a representative to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, I got the nod. Every month for the next 5 years I met with representatives of 32 different religions and denominations who made up ACOG's Interfaith Advisory Committee.


Andy Young was one of its members. At our last meeting he said never before in history had 200 nations come together for any purpose! He read these words from Ephesians: "Christ is our peace. He has made us one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility."

Then he told this story:


The previous summer he'd been in South Africa at the invitation of Nelson Mandela. When apartheid was abolished and South Africa held its first democratic elections, Mandela, the leading opponent of apartheid, was elected president.


13 months later Mandela invited Andy to be his guest when South Africa hosted the World Rugby Championship.  The South African team was entirely white. The country was about 80 percent black. So even though the championship was being played in Johannesburg, there was little support for the home team.


A heated national debate broke out about the team logo -- a leaping gazelle called a "Springbok." White Afrikaners said, "The Springbok has been the symbol of every rugby team we've ever had." Black South Africans said, "Exactly! It reminds us of South Africa's racist history, and we want it changed." It was an explosive situation.


A few days before the opening game Mandela visited the South African team. After the visit, he called a press conference and showed up wearing a rugby jersey and a cap with Springboks on them.


Mandela said until the elections he and most black people in South Africa had supported whoever was playing against the Springboks. "But regardless of the past," he said, "these are our boys now. They may all be white, but they're our boys, and we must get behind them and support them in this tournament."


The Springboks' coach told his players to show up in suits and ties the next day. He took them out to the prison and the cell where Mandela had spent nearly three decades.


The coach said, "This is the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. He was kept here for 27 years by the racist policies of our government. We Afrikaners tolerated his imprisonment for all those years, and yet he has backed us up publicly. We can't let him down."


The tournament opened and to everyone's surprise the Springboks won their first game. In fact, they made it to the final game against New Zealand, a perennial power in rugby. It was like Slippery Rock playing Notre Dame. And yet, at the end of regulation, the game was tied.


Mandela was in the stands, wearing a Springbok jersey. During the time out he led a South African children's choir out of the stands. They started to sing an old African miners' song. Within minutes, 65,000 people were standing and singing together. Andy said, "I don't know anything about rugby. I didn't understand a word of the song. But I was in tears."


When the Springboks took the field, they were unstoppable. They won the World Rugby Championship. For the next 24 hours, whites and blacks danced in the streets of South Africa. One of the most divided nations on the planet was united by something some people consider insignificant -- a rugby match. But God used it to help heal a nation.


When Andy told that story I said to myself, "That's it. That's why I've put in all these miles and all these hours for all these years. God can even use events like the Olympics to break down the dividing walls of hostility. So, let the games begin!"

From Monday Morning in North Georgia.