Mark Wessels / Reuters
People attend a special Sunday morning service dedicated to Nelson Mandela at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, on Dec. 8.
People of differing races and religions across South Africa gathered to pray and sing on Sunday in the first official day of mourning for former president Nelson Mandela, the country's beloved champion of acceptance and equality.
“The public is urged to gather in halls, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and in their homes for prayer services and meditation, reflecting on the life of Madiba and his contribution to our country and the world,” urged South African President Jacob Zuma.
Although Sunday opened the state-wide observances that will culminate in a funeral service next Sunday, South Africans have expressed their gratitude for Mandela in somber but celebratory gatherings since he died Thursday at the age of 95.
As the first black president of South Africa, Mandela led the country out of its heavily racially-divisive history of apartheid.
According to Reuters, the emotional ceremonies that have taken place since Thursday rival those that erupted when Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison for opposing the corrupt government.
"What we have seen over the past few days reflects the true spirit of South Africa as a place where people of all backgrounds are working together to create a non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous society. These efforts are creating the hope that we will achieve even greater things than we have during the first 20 Years of Freedom," said Minister Collins Chabane, a representative of the committee of state funerals in South Africa.
Methodist, Presbyterian, interfaith, Buddhist and Dutch Reformed services honored the late leader throughout the country Sunday, according to the South African Government.
Reverend Andre Bartlett spoke to a largely white congregation at Melville Dutch Reformed Church in Johannesburg and said, "Remember the fears we had over what would happen to the country: under the leadership of Mr Mandela, none of those fears came true."
At another Dutch Reformed church in Pretoria, Pastor Niekie Lamprecht remembered, "What helped the white people of South Africa was Mr. Mandela's attitude. He said, 'Let's forgive,' and he forgave."
Matt Dunham / AP
A man places flowers on tributes outside the home of former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 8. South Africans flocked to houses of worship for a national day of prayer and reflection Sunday to honor former President Nelson Mandela, starting planned events that will culminate in what is expected to be one of the biggest funerals in modern times.
At St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, parishioners hoped Mandela's forgiving nature would become stronger in the nation's future. "May his long walk to freedom be enjoyed and realized in our time by all of us," congregants said in a prayer.
President Zuma, at a service at Bryanston Methodist Church in Johannesburg echoed the same sentiment. He said the day was to honor Mandela, but also "to pray for our nation ... to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for."
Zuma said that Mandela even forgave those who imprisoned him. "He wanted everyone to be free," Zuma said.
Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, joined by one of his grandsons, Mandla Mandela, attended the same service at Bryanston Methodist Church.
The family said in a statement, "we take this opportunity to extend our sincere gratitude to the religious community for the thoughts and prayers extended to our family through prayer and meditation."
"The family of our departed dear father, is comforted in the knowledge that the world so deeply shares our sense of loss for one of Africa’s greatest sons," the Mandela family said in response to the outpouring of veneration from leaders around the world.
Fifty nine heads of state have said they will attend Mandela's memorial service or funeral, according to Reuters.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande are among the 53 heads of state who will gather at Tuesday's memorial service, held at Johannesburg's FNB stadium. Twenty-six members of the U.S. Congress are also slated to attend.
Oprah Winfrey, and singers Bono and Peter Gabriel will also travel to the memorial, which is expected to draw 80,000 people.
As the country prepared for the influx of people wishing to pay their respects to the man they affectionately called "Madiba," or "Tata," meaning father, only a parliamentary meeting was on the official government schedule. Still, more ceremonies filled with prayer and song would continue to arise.
Anti-apartheid activist, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu planned to speak at a memorial service for his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate in Johannesburg Monday night.
The government has encouraged South Africans to celebrate the leader on Tuesday in their provinces, as the memorial service will be broadcasted live. Cape Town announced they will screen the memorial from the Grand Parade, Cape Town’s public square, where prayers also took place Sunday.
"And as he dies, he lives again and again. He is resurrected in every act of kindness," Anglican dean, Michael Weeder said at a tribute held in Cape Town’s St. George's Cathedral Sunday. The church served as a safe haven for anti-apartheid campaigners in the 1980s.
On Monday, Cape Town Mayor Alderman Patricia de Lille planned to host an evening of remembrance, followed on Wednesday by a commemorative event featuring local musicians at the Cape Town Stadium.
Additional services will take place throughout the country Wednesday through Friday, while Mandela's family and then the public are given a chance to view his body in Pretoria, the South African government said.
Following a funeral service on Sunday, Dec. 15, Mandela will be laid to rest in his childhood village of Qunu.
Bantu Holomisa, a friend of Mandela's, told The Associated Press Sunday the leader was not on life support when he died Thursday, after months of deteriorating health.
Holosima said, "I think Madiba gave the South Africans and the world over enough warning to say 'guys I've batted well during my innings and I'm now ready to go home.'"
During the day of prayer, Johannesburg resident Shadrack Motau said, "I don't think we will ever have anybody like him. I compare him to Jesus Christ."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Kim Ludbrook / EPA
Mourners pay tribute to South Africa's revered anti-apartheid icon, who died on Dec. 5, 2013.