SOWETO, South Africa — It was fitting that on the national day of prayer Sunday for the late Nelson Mandela, the pews and every available standing space at Regina Mundi Catholic Church were filled to capacity with congregants, tourists and members of the press.
The church, built in 1964, is woven into the history of the township that was the epicenter of the uprising against apartheid and its congregants gathered here and in thousands of churches nationwide as foreign dignitaries arrived to honor the man who led the fight for democracy and an end to white rule. A public memorial service is planned at a soccer stadium Tuesday, and an invite-only funeral will be held Sunday in his hometown.
Regina Mundi was the church that offered anti-apartheid activists shelter from police bullets and tear gas during the now famous 1976 uprising in which thousands of students protested and more than 100 died.
So it was fitting as well that Doris Malinga sat on the wooden pews Sunday in the church that has been at the center of the pivotal moments of her life.
It was in the brick building with stain glassed windows and marble altar where she sought refuge from the police in 1976. It was in the church's courtyard where, she says, supporters of the minority white rule killed her 20-year-old son 17 years later.
And it was in those very pews where she sat the following year and began to let go of her anger against white oppressors. That was when she heard Mandela's call for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation after he himself was released from 27 years in prison for trying to overthrow the government.
As she heard the priest praise Mandela's virtue and call on the congregation to follow the late president's example, Malinga is flooded with memories.
"I feel choked up," she says in her native Zulu, holding her hand against her chest. Malinga is 70 and the travails of her life are etched in deep lines on her face. But she is fiercely proud of her family's activism.
She's dressed head-to-toe in yellow, green and black, the colors of the African National Congress, the governing political party that Mandela headed and which is known for its push to dismantle apartheid.
Malinga says she has been a committed member of the ANC since her older sister, who raised her after their mother died, introduced her to the party. At church, she wears an ANC flag wrapped around her neck like a scarf.
"I won't wear black," she says. "I must say farewell to him because he was the ANC.
President Jacob Zuma had called on all South Africans to visit church, synagogues or any house of worship on Sunday to reflect on Mandela's legacy.
The government said Sunday that 53 heads of state and government had confirmed that they would be attending a national memorial service and state funeral for the country's first black and democratically elected president. President Obama will be among them, and Prince Charles of England.
Sitting in Regina Mundi after the service, Tozi Mthokazisi, 36, Lucky Cecilia, 49, and Patience Polite, 44, marvel at how much their country has changed since apartheid was dismantled and Mandela became president in 1994.
"He was a hero," says Cecilia. She says blacks could not walk about freely or visit friends in other places because the government kept track of their every move. They didn't have electricity or plumbing.
The trio, all mothers, say the ability to finish high school and go to college is the single biggest change that has been afforded blacks since the end of apartheid.
"Before black people could only be teachers, police or nurses or be domestic workers," Polite says. Today, she says, more people can go to college with scholarships and choose their own career path.
The ladies, however, say the country's leaders have not fulfilled the promise laid out by Mandela's victories. They say corruption is rampant and the gap between the very rich and the very poor grows wider.
Mthokazisi says she was too young to remember the daily struggles and humiliation of blacks during apartheid. But, she says, her country — and the world — will never see another leader like Mandela.
"He was chosen," she says. "It was his actions and behavior. It was the way he approached people. Mandela was the father to us all."