Good Bfana by James Gregory is a book people in America sorely needs to read right now, the summer of 2016, as racial tension burns in our country. I recently reviewed The Autobiography Malcolm X. In the 1950’ and early to mid 60’s, Malcolm went on a miraculous journey from hatred of all white people to hatred of evil and a desire for brotherhood of all men, whites included. Something similar happens to James Gregory and Nelson Mandela as they spend the decades of the 70’s and 80’s together.
Gregory is the jailor. Of course at the beginning of their time together, he is not Mandela’s personal warden and they certainly are not friends. But things change. The seeds were planted early in Gregory’s life. They weren’t the only seeds planted. In soil of his soul, Gregory had a love for people that disregarded color. This goes back to his earliest childhood. Also from his childhood and from his formal education apartheid and hatred was planted in him. In fact, by the time he became a guard in the prison system, he hated most people. Relationships, real, deep relationships, seemed to be missing in his life.
As a cold, hardened, relationship averse man, prison guard seemed to be in the perfect job for him. He was the kind of tough guy that could keep rowdy prisoners in line. What changed? This tough cuss was faired minded, and when he discovered his famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was a good man, a fair man, and not a terrorist, his perspective changed. The two formed, unintentionally at first, a trust that evolved into a friendship.
I am not spoiling anything here. The subtitle is ‘Nelson Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend.’ Knowing the ending doesn’t spoil the story. In fact, what’s so amazing for me is that I was amazed even though I knew the ending. I was in tears because I saw that even in Apartheid South Africa, love is more powerful than hate. I believe God was in the friendship of the guard and the political prisoner.
And I believe God can bring people together in America today. Some black people, with reason, totally fear the police and by extension ‘the system.’ Some white people, not wanting to face their own prejudice, reject the notion that they benefit from the system. They – we (I am as white as they come) – do. In 2016 America, white people, educated people, and wealthy (read middle class) people benefit from privileges others lack. But, I think God can bring us together in love.
God will work through programs and protests and government legislation. God will work through movements and interfaith worship services and black-white gatherings. But more than any of these macro-level efforts, God will work through relationships. When individuals step beyond themselves and befriend individuals totally different than themselves, totally ‘other,’ God will reform the hearts of those individuals. And that’s where a change in society will rise up, in individual hearts.