The Transformative Power of Human Connection

A group photo with Christo Brand and other attendees holding his book

Reflections on the Leadership Lesson of Christo Brand, Mandela’s Prison Guard Turned Friend

Last week, the Grand Rapids Chamber hosted Christo Brand for a special leadership lesson breakfast to share his story of befriending Nelson Mandela, one of his former prisoners.

Throughout his stories, Brand highlighted the positive outcomes that are possible when human connections are made across differences.


Seeing One’s Humanity

Upon entering his profession as a corrections officer, Mr. Brand was told to see prisoners as the enemy, as terrorists who threatened their country, and to treat them accordingly. But Brand chose to see the prisoners in his care as human beings worthy of respect, affirming their humanity through small acts of kindness, which were received with gratitude by Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners.

Brand encouraged prisoners to pursue and further their education; and he observed the positive impact education had on Mandela’s life, even though Mandela was serving a life prison sentence.


A West Michigan Story

This observation resonated with my work in the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), a bachelor’s degree program offered in partnership between Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary to incarcerated students in the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Through education, the CPI equips students and graduates to become leaders and positively impact their community; and because most CPI students are serving life sentences, they are transforming the prison community from the inside.

Christo Brand and Nelson Mandela exemplify the transformative power of human connection and education to bridge the divide across many areas of difference; and I’m grateful the Calvin Prison Initiative is among many people and organizations striving to make such tools accessible in the West Michigan community and beyond.

Learn more about CPI at an upcoming documentary screening, Behind Our Walls, which recently won the Best Documentary award at the Grand Rapids Film Festival.


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