Article | December 29, 2021
In Memoriam: Desmond Tutu — a Personal Reflection
I suspect that it would be impossible to record all of us who have experienced Archbishop Tutu’s kindness and wisdom. His capacity for friendship seemed to know no bounds, let alone his creative genius and significance in world history. I count him as a friend going back fifty years.
When he spoke at the cathedral in 2008, I made a brief introduction: Here’s what I said. “Desmond is an old friend. I am honored to welcome you all to the cathedral for this very special evening. I can report that Desmond is the same now as he was before he was famous! I met him many years ago when, as Bishop of Lesotho, he was the guest of an upper East Side parish in Manhattan. They didn’t quite know what to do with him and asked me if I could invite him to come to The General Theological Seminary for tea with some students. We soon discovered that we had a lot in common! Not least of all — we were both trained for the priesthood by the same religious community (the Community of the Resurrection) and had Father Trevor Huddleston C.R. who wrote Naught for Your Comfort in the 60s as an inspiration. The Community had a strong connection with South Africa. This meeting began a strong and long friendship which I treasured for its depth, humor and kindness.”
I have several memories of his humor (coupled with his infectious laughter) — I remember one breakfast in the Archbishop’s “palace” in Cape Town and looking at a wall covered with copies of his being made an honorary citizen of many of the major cities throughout the world. In the most prominent place was his honorary citizenship of Disneyland! — “a world where happiness is a way of life.” He made fun of his tending to be overweight — “They will be naming me Desmond Three Three if I’m not careful!” But it should be noted also that his humor was unafraid of his highlighting his dark experiences. For example, when he and his followers were confined to a holding cell in the Cape Town Prison, he shouted, “I demand to see my lawyer!” And a voice came from the back of the cell: “I am already here, Your Grace!” Those held in the cell collapsed with laughter.
I remember escorting Desmond to a meeting in a local hotel in San Francisco. As we were crossing the hotel lobby, a woman rushed up to him and grabbed his hand: “Mr. Mandela, it’s such an honor to meet you!” Desmond smiled and squeezed her hand without a word. When he was accused of being a communist sympathizer he told the oppressors, “We do not take our marching orders from Moscow. We take our marching orders from Galilee!”
Besides meeting many times in the US, we also met in Johannesburg and Cape Town — during the cruel absurdities of apartheid — when even simple acts of friendship were illegal! But my trip in July 1994 was very different from my first visit over ten years earlier. Then, I needed a visa and had to promise that I was going purely for pleasure. I spent some of my time in Johannesburg doing things that were technically illegal but which we take for granted — like eating out with one’s friends and visiting their homes. During that visit, Desmond was in the witness box during the trial of his predecessor as head of the South African Council of Churches. I sat for several hours in the visitors’ gallery of the court. Desmond and I did manage to have lunch and I was able to spend some time in Soweto — both technically illegal. He was always unafraid to speak out with both passion and grace! He made the headlines one night I was with him, with his trashing government and MPs for their high salaries.
My most vivid memory of spending a great time with Desmond was in Cape Town. I was staying at the Deanery and following a good supper of banana, guava and pawpaw he took me with him to the opening of the Bridge in the notorious District Six. There was a “colored” band in part “black face” with white make-up called the Coons! This was not a politically correct country! District Six saw demolition on a large scale — all that was left were two mosques and a church — institutions which the authorities dared not touch — and the displacement of non-white residents on a large scale. With Desmond in good form, we met a Moslem at the opening who was a delight — enjoying the language and relishing his love of the British. He said Christians and Muslims lived in great harmony in the old District Six and that he knew all the words of “Abide with me” and “Rock of Ages.” I learned that all the houses in District Six had three ducks flying in formation on the wall, a “Bless This House” sign and a picture of the Queen. The man wondered why an Englishman would have anything to do with “them Yanks” and left me with “Salaam alaykum and the best of British luck!” The people in Six loved language and came up with some priceless malapropisms. “My husband just died. His heart attacked him.” And, “My wife has just had her history rectified.” We stayed for the Annual General Meeting of District Six which was less than half an hour and finished with a rousing singing of the national anthem — Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica. I tell this story because this is and was Desmond’s world – a revelation of his generous soul and brave spirit. He will be greatly missed but will perpetually inspire. Alleluia!
Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral