Nelson Mandela at the Monitor: A memorable visitor on a quiet Sunday

Five months after his release from his 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela visited Boston, and on a Sunday morning he dropped in on the reporters and editors of The Christian Science Monitor.

Peter Main/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
Nelson Mandela, with Monitor editor Richard Cattani (r.), stands on the Christian Science Church plaza in Boston, Mass. on June 24, 1990, in this file photo.

It was a quiet Sunday morning in Boston's Back Bay -- June 24, 1990 -- and a small crew of editors and reporters was working on the next day's edition of The Christian Science Monitor. The big news of the day: Nelson Mandela's visit to Boston.

A Monitor editor spotted an unexpected visitor walking near the "reflecting pool."

It was Nelson Mandela.

Everyone in the newsroom piled out the doors to meet him. Mr. Mandela saw Massachusetts as the anti-apartheid struggle's "second home," since it had been a leader in the disinvestment movement that had put pressure on the South African government to change its ways. And it turned out he had a special fondness for the Monitor as well.

Mandela stood on the front steps of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, just across from the Monitor's headquarters, and spoke of the "warmth and love" he had received in Boston. He then surprised those gathered with these words:

"The Christian Science Monitor was well known to me during my 27 years in prison. It continues to give me hope and confidence for the world's future."

Richard Cattani, the Monitor's editor, recalled Mandela's eyes "darting with delight" as he looked at the flags around the plaza.

"We need a world without distinction among peoples," Mandela said. "We are all children of God."

Only five months earlier, the world had watched in rapt attention as Mandela made what is now known as "the long walk to freedom," emerging from South African prison after 27 years. Monitor reporter John Battersby was on the scene:

"Time stood still during the hour in which we waited for Mandela. But when the moment arrived and I saw the tall figure of Mandela striding toward the media throng, I lost all sense of time and ego and walked toward him with a broad smile. He noticed me, smiled back, and walked up to shake my hand."

That handshake was memorable to many. Mr. Cattani recalled in a column afterwards that the onetime boxer had a grip like that of Muhammed Ali -- "a contrast between power and gentleness, authority and humility." 

John Yemma is editor of The Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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