Vice President Joe Biden said former South African President Nelson Mandela taught the world that trust, justice and reconciliation are possible, and that change can come.
Biden spoke Wednesday at a memorial service attended by members of Congress, civil rights leaders and others at Washington National Cathedral.
He said when Mandela was released after spending decades in prison, he would have been forgiven for continuing to be imprisoned by his own hatred and resentment. He said Mandela could have chosen anger and revenge.
But Biden sayid, instead, Mandela chose trust and reconciliation as he worked to end apartheid. The racial segregation system was still in place when Mandela was released from prison.
Wednesday's service, arranged in partnership with the South African Embassy, was billed as the official U.S. memorial for Mandela. A limited number of tickets to the service were made available online.
The former dean of the cathedral, the Right Rev. John Walker, was arrested during anti-apartheid demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy in 1985. Cathedral officials say they stand with South Africans in mourning the loss of Mandela, calling him a voice for justice.
Thousands of miles away, world leaders and native South Africans stood before the flag-draped casket containing Mandela's body at the Pretoria amphitheater where he was sworn in 19 years earlier as South Africa's first black president.
Some made the sign of the cross, others simply spent a few moments gazing at Mandela's face through a glass bubble atop the coffin at the Union Buildings, the government offices in South Africa's capital, Pretoria.
Mandela's body will lie in state at government buildings in Pretoria from Wednesday until the burial Sunday at his rural home in Qunu.
The U.S. memorial comes a day after President Barack Obama paid tribute to the anti-apartheid icon at a public memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa.
At the service, Obama implored thousands to carry Mandela's mission of erasing injustice and inequality.
Washington had a deep relationship with Mandela; it was in the nation's capital that local leaders began sit-ins and protests at the South African Embassy that led to the Free South Africa Movement.
Though the event at the National Cathedral will be a high-profile remembrance of Mandela, organizers stressed that they hoped other locations would also hold their own celebrations of his life and work.
"We don't want people to feel discouraged that they couldn't attend," said Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica. "He meant so much, he embodied so much. There are many ways that the celebrations can be jumping off point for more activism."