Nelson Mandela was sent to Robben Island in the winter of 1964. For eighteen years Mandela slept on the floor of a tiny little prison cell. He was given a bucket to use for a toilet and a hammer that he used to break large stones into piles of gravel. The men he was incarcerated with became family, but they constantly and sporadically came and went, creating a fragile sense of stability.
Mandela was cut off from family, limited to one visitor a year and a single letter every six months. During those eighteen long, tedious years, Mandela allowed for the painful ordinariness of his days to nurture character. Breaking his back over a pile of stones, breaking boulders down to pebbles, developed a faithfulness that created one of Africa’s, if not the world’s, greatest leaders. It’s almost absurd to suggest that eighteen years in a rock quarry made Mandela the president that he was, but without those years I imagine he could have never drummed up the intestinal fortitude to become the man he did.
When I visited Robben Island, I toured the rock quarries Mandela labored in, and to this day I keep a photo of his little prison cell on my desk. The image of his home of eighteen years is an invitation to faithfulness. When I get frustrated with the mundane and routine bits of life, I am reminded that pounding rocks into gravel makes us who we are. Breaking down large, heavy, stones into sand and chalky powder creates within us the faithfulness required to live beautifully into the dramatic, while grounding ourselves in the ordinary.
[Excerpted from “Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community” by Chris Heuertz]