JOHANNESBURG — Their church was once a pillar of South African apartheid, but white, Afrikaans-speaking parishioners who attended services Sunday had only prayers of gratitude for the man who condemned the system to history.
Addressing the congregation of the Melville Dutch Reformed Church in Johannesburg, Reverend Andre Bartlett asked them to "think back to the 1990s," when the old order was crumbling and a newly-freed Nelson Mandela was preparing his successful run for the presidency.
"Remember the fears we had over what would happen to the country: under the leadership of Mr. Mandela, none of those fears came true," Bartlett said.
South Africans across the racial and religious spectrum flocked to places of worship Sunday, with special prayers for Mandela being said in Catholic churches, Hindu temples, mosques and synagogues across the country.
In Melville, some of the parishioners wept as they sang the national anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica — originally a Xhosa hymn — translated into Afrikaans.
Bartlett lit a small candle on the altar in Mandela's memory "to thank God that he gave us someone who represented important values of peace, reconciliation, respect and harmony."
The Dutch Reformed Church, its creed partly based on a biblical interpretation casting the Boer community as chosen people of God, was a powerful supporter of the apartheid system that ended with democratic elections in 1994.
Several years after Mandela became president, the Church issued a public apology and acknowledged it was guilty of spiritual injustices.
"When I was young, apartheid kept the people of South Africa separated from one another. We didn't know each other," said 71-year-old parishioner Alida van Deventer.
"I was told that he was a terrorist who deserved to be in jail. We were afraid.
"But times have changed and Nelson Mandela played a big role in that," Van Deventer said.
"We can be grateful," agreed retired jurist Michael Nel. "My biggest regret is that he did not run for a second term as president."
After the service, Bartlett acknowledged that many Dutch Reformed Church congregations remained largely whites-only.
"Any church that would disallow a black worshiper today, would be sanctioned," he told AFP.
"But the problem is that apartheid and the division of people have become such established patterns. People still prefer to go to the same churches they had traditionally gone to," he said.
Across town in the once blacks-only township of Soweto, worshipers crammed into the country's largest Catholic church Regina Mundi, which anti-apartheid activists had often used as shelter during police raids.
The mood was more contemplative than grief-stricken, with many acknowledging that the time had come to let go of the frail 95-year-old who had transformed their country.
"He fought for us then, now he needs to rest," said Olga Mbeke, 60, who was born in Soweto.
"I feel positive," said Mary Sonopo, 49. "He was an old man and he needed to rest. His soul must rest in peace because he went through a lot."
President Jacob Zuma, who had urged worshipers to "sing at the top of our voices" Sunday, attended a service at Bryanston Methodist Church in Johannesburg where he sat next to Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Addressing the congregation, Zuma urged South Africans to unite around the ideals Mandela espoused.
"He preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation," Zuma said.
"He preached and believed in peace, that we should live in peace, that we should live in unity," he added.
At Capetown's Holy Cross Anglican Church, Tutu Phankisa, 49, said she had mixed feelings attending the special service for the man fondly known to South Africans as Madiba or Tata (Father) Mandela.
"I'm celebrating, but also mourning him," Phankisa said.
"I was like a child to Tata Mandela because he fought for me.
"But if he was still alive he wouldn't want us to feel sad . . . he was someone who liked to laugh and sing for us," she added.
The congregation united in a prayer that was used in several services on Sunday.
"Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world," it urged.
© AFP 2014