Leader Letter

Subscribing congregations should share this letter with congregational leaders.  Being oriented to the month’s theme, and equipped to help others in the congregation get aligned with it, builds the whole congregation’s engagement with the theme.  Which, of course, means unity and energy for the community.



Dear Friends,

Robben Island, visible from downtown Cape Town, South Africa, was one of the foremost symbols of cruelty and dehumanization in the apartheid regime.  Freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned there for years, and subjected to the hell of meaningless toil in the limestone quarry.  Guards often viewed prisoners as less than human.  Prisoners regularly were not provided with enough to eat.  But, within the limestone quarry, there was a dug-out cave, a place with shade, where workers could rest.. And in those shadows, people learned together.. In his memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela says:

“In the struggle, Robben Island was known as the University. This is not only because of what we learned from books, or because prisoners studied English, Africaans, art, geography, and mathematics, or because so many of our men…earned multiple degrees. Robben Island was known as the University because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses…Teaching conditions were not ideal. Study groups would work together in the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through leaders asking and answering questions.”

Looking back, we might believe that apartheid was doomed to fail.. But in the midst of it, after centuries of colonialism and in light of heavily armed maintenance of that cruel system, its fall was anything but inevitable.  The freedom fighters who pledged their lives to the generations ahead of them had sacrificed much.  It might seem that imprisonment on Robben Island was the end of their freedom.  And yet, even there, for them, freedom was not a physical state, but a practice.  Sustaining human agency, the power of choice, even in these impoverished, inhumane conditions, is a heroic testimony to human capacity.  We can find stories of human freedom in bondage throughout history.  And yet, celebrating the power of the human spirit and the human mind to claim freedom despite bondage, we can too easily skim over the facts of material oppression.  Yes, people can make do.  But there is such a thing as justice, made real.  So, as we look at freedom, we lift up the capacity of humanity to wrest from oppression what life can be claimed.. And, as we do, we don’t let our eyes go misty, believing that a positive outlook erases injustice.. Instead, we channel our powers to work for the physical conditions in which all are honored, and cherished, and upheld in dignity.  This is not charity work.  This is about the moral fate of us all, knowing that, as Civil Rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”  As we reflect on freedom this month, let us also see how we will work for it.



Rev. Jake Morrill
Lead Minister ORUUC
Executive Director UUCF
Launchpad Partner