The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo

The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo of Life Restoration Ministry leads the opening praise song for a celebration of Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / June 26, 2012)

With songs, stirring words and a cake, a group of Baltimoreans joined the worldwide party to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, an occasion made even happier by news that the health of the hospitalized former South African president was improving.

"I was waiting for this day for a long time," said the Rev. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo, a minister public health educator from South Africa who led a celebration at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore.

"I know people lost hope … but we can celebrate 95 years of Nelson Mandela's life — hallelujah!"

The event at the Upton church was part of "Mandela Day," declared by the United Nations in 2009 to celebrate the leader who was jailed for 27 years before becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid president.

Outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela was admitted last month with a lung infection, thousands of his countrymen sang, danced and blew the horns called vuvuzelas to celebrate the birthday that he recently seemed unlikely to reach.

In Baltimore, the South African ambassador to the United States joined clergy and other leaders for a program of speeches, music and dance at Sharp Street Memorial. For some, Mandela's long imprisonment by South Africa's apartheid government for his activism prompted reflections on how so many African-Americans in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States are imprisoned for vastly different reasons.

"People are taking each other's lives for no reason at all. They're choosing to be imprisoned for foolishness — not for a cause, not for a struggle," said Dania Thornton, 42, of northwest Baltimore.

Thornton and her husband brought their 1-year-old son Aidan and their 3-year-old daughter Aamira to the event even though they're too young to know about Mandela and what he represents. Clarence Thornton, 54, said he hopes they and other young people will be inspired to carry on the work of their forebears.

"[Mandela] went through a lot. The same with Martin Luther King. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be where we are today," said Clarence Thornton, who works as a packer in a plastics manufacturing company. "Now how about the children? Put the guns down, and pick up the torch."

South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, who arrived from a celebration with congressional leaders in Washington, thanked the crowd for their support for the anti-apartheid movement and for Mandela himself.

"You continued to pray for him all over, on Fridays in the mosques, on Saturdays in the shuls, on Sundays in the churches," said Ebrahim. "He has shown us he is alive, and that is a triumph of your prayers."

Like other speakers, Rasool said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate provides a model for those who are struggling with the recent not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed a Florida teenager.

"Nelson Mandela speaks to us, he gives us a message of healing as the nation recoils from the Trayvon Martin incident," Rasool said. "He speaks to us today for us to reconcile on the basis of justice."

The Rev. Cary James, Sharp Street's pastor, noted with pride that Mandela was baptized in the Methodist church. One of the highlights of his life, he said, was traveling to Johannesburg and meeting Mandela.

"I want you to treat this as a day," James told his audience, "to make a difference in the world."

The United Nations and Mandela's own foundation have encouraged people to mark the day by spending 67 minutes — one for each year of Mandela's public service — doing something to make the world a better place.

Across the country on Thursday, volunteers were scheduled to rebuild homes in areas hit by Hurricane Sandy, replenish food banks and plant trees.

Mandela's many admirers were cheered Thursday by news that his condition was, in the words of current South African President Jacob Zuma, "steadily improving."

Zuma, who visited Mandela in the hospital on Thursday, issued a statement noting the country's pride in their "international icon," and thanking people for giving him "the biggest birthday celebration ever this year."

"Happy 95th Birthday Tata Madiba!" Zuma said, using the affectionate name South Africans have for Mandela. (Madiba is Mandela's clan name; Tata means father in the language of his Xhosa tribe.)

In Baltimore, state Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell told the Sharp Street audience that they all can "rejoice that he is recovering."

"He is with us still physically, but most importantly he is here in spirit. And it is that spirit that will take us over those mountains, draw us out of the valleys that sometimes we are caught in as individuals but [that] we are struggling to get out of as a community," she said. "He has given us the guidance and the vision to pull ourselves out."

Union leader Esther Iveren noted labor's role in toppling apartheid in South Africa. Other speakers read letters from Sen. Barbara Mikulski and David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, and a poet, a dancer and a deejay entertained the crowd.

Participants in the Baltimore event were cheered to hear Mandela's daughter, Zindzi, had told a British television station Wednesday night that his health had dramatically improved and he might return home "any time soon."

As the Rev. John A. Lunn, Sr. of Berean Baptist Church in Baltimore said, "What a great birthday present."

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella