After a hot day's drive through the South African province of Transkei, the Rev. H. Eddie Fox reached his hotel, expecting a good night's rest. But the desk clerk's news changed those plans.
"Have you heard?" the clerk asked Fox, who was on a mission to Africa earlier this month as world director of evangelism of the World Methodist Council. "Mandela is to be released tomorrow."
So much for a quiet night.
"There was an electricity released in that room," said Fox, who is in Brandon visiting First United Methodist Church of Brandon. "You could feel the tremendous excitement."
He said his visit to South Africa was planned last November and that he expected to spend part of the trip on a retreat with other Methodist ministers. But the events of Feb. 11, when Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison, prompted Fox to abandon the retreat.
"This was no time for a retreat," he said. "For me it was an honor just to participate in the awareness that the church is not something on the side but right in the middle of life."
The night of Mandela's release, Fox was preaching to a multiracial youth group at the Johannesburg church of the Rev. Peter Storey, the Methodist leader who was Mandela's prison chaplain. Fox spoke of the prophet Nehemiah, who worked to rebuild his city despite others' attempts to discourage him.
"My word to them was not to surrender their dream of building a society in which there is righteousness and justice for all in South Africa," Fox said.
On Feb. 12, he was in the crowd of 120,000 at a soccer stadium in Soweto, cheering Mandela's return home.
"They hadn't even seen a photo of Mandela in 27 years. When he came into that stadium, it was almost like a mythical figure was being resurrected. People were just very curious to see what he looked like."
Wherever he went, Fox said, the mood was jubilant. "People weren't walking, they actually were dancing in the streets," he said. Amid the joy, however, was concern about the future.
"It's like the birth of a child. When a baby is being born, it is the time of greatest risk, the time when the baby is nearest life and nearest death," he said.
"There's a tremendous fear. How do you chart a new South Africa? There's a strong desire that the people with the clearest vision will be the new leaders, not those who want to benefit for their own sake."
Fox, who has been in his position for the past 15 months, noted that in that short time he has seen many world events once thought impossible.
Just last July, he was in Czechoslovakia, where Methodist ministers told him their government would never change.
Now he is looking forward to a trip to the Soviet Union in May. Until then, he will continue visiting American churches. In Brandon, where he will speak at 7:30 p.m. today, Fox has found a great deal of interest in his South African experiences.
Fox remarked on the irony of the fact that the system of apartheid originally was given a biblical justification by the Afrikaner church and now is denounced from pulpits across South Africa.
But he also recalled the South African minister who reminded him that although the United States has laws designed to protect minority rights, racial prejudice remains.