12/05/2013 07:29 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Nelson Mandela: Statesman of LGBT Equality

The great life of Nelson Mandela demands that, after our tears, we stand up, dry our eyes and work for justice throughout the world. We grieve for and salute one of the greatest leaders in history. Because of Nelson Mandela, South Africa became the first country in the world to include constitutional protection for same-gender-loving persons.

As the head of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a denomination with many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer members in 40 countries, including South Africa, I honor the liberator, Mandela.

I want to lift up the voices of my colleagues who grieve the world's loss and celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.

Sharon Cox Ludwig, MCC staff in South Africa, says:

President Mandela, a man of principle, believed in freedom for all people. Soon after taking office, he met with lesbian and gay groups at the Union Buildings. This was a significant moment, showing Madiba's commitment to equality for all people. President Mandela spoke of freedom often and did so from a place of deep knowing of the pain caused by exclusion, oppression and discrimination. He rests peacefully now. It is for ourselves and our beloved country that we mourn.

Said the Rev. Darlene Garner, director of the MCC Office of Emerging Ministries, who once served our MCC movement in South Africa:

Today, we stand in solidarity with all South Africans, united in hope by a life well-lived. Around the world, when we hear the powerful South African National Anthem, "Nkosi Skelel' iAfrica" ("God Bless Africa"), we all stand proud, knowing that freedom is possible. Nelson Mandela rose up after decades of imprisonment to free his people from the scourge of apartheid. The father and first president of a liberated South Africa chose life instead of bitterness. He was a towering statesman for Africa and the world as he modeled reconciliation, compassion and justice.

Said the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, Executive Director of MCC's Global Justice Institute:

Nelson Mandela was a political and spiritual hero to many people the world over. Mandela said, "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." I pray today that his spirit, like that of so many of the great saints who have gone before us, will continue to inspire us to do whatever it takes to live life in a way that enhances the freedom of all people.

In my own experience as a faith leader, I know the world grieves as one in a way we seldom experience. We grieve and feel our universal sadness across cultures, religions, nations, peoples and difference. It is one of the gifts of Nelson Mandela's legacy of compassion.

So, in that compassion, I urge all of us to pray for his family, and for his brothers and sisters in the struggle for freedom, who mourn him; for South Africans, that they may be as united in his death as they were at that great moment nearly 20 years ago when he was first elected president; and that the world may treasure his memory and honor his legacy by following in his footsteps of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

I cannot forget being in South Africa toward the end of apartheid, at a World Council of Churches meeting, where I met Bishop Desmond Tutu and so many young LGBT Christians and activists. Many were heroes of the movement to end the terrible atrocities of apartheid.

I learned from one of those heroes that when Nelson Mandela was a young attorney and activist, he had a driver who was a gay man, who helped him understand the need to include all people in the new South Africa. I give thanks for a leader who, in the midst of his own enormous challenges, was willing to have his heart and mind changed by a friend. The life testimonies of South Africans who sacrificed so much help inspire the members of MCC to keep on working for freedom. We are all eternally indebted to the example of Nelson Mandela.