Giving Thanks for Desmond Tutu

Another Great Soul has burned through the flesh of this world to dwell forever in the heart of God. As for so many thousands around the world, Desmond Tutu’s death arouses memories of how he touched my own life. Like them I lift up those moments like the little stones adorning graves in countless Jewish cemeteries.

Our dear Archbishop—and you did not have to be Anglican to claim him as your spiritual guide—was a frequent visitor to Emory University, where I was on the faculty of the School of Theology from 1985-1995. In 1991-1992, while I was on sabbatical abroad, he claimed my office for his own, assisted by my diligent and kind secretary Flo Strobhert.

Did he open any of my books upon the shelves? Was my chair comfortable enough for his frame? I will never know. But perhaps the osmosis of his spirit cleansed the room a little bit of lesser thoughts drowned in lesson preparations and administrative work.

And then there was the time a few years later, in 1998, when I was in Cape Town doing research on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that we met in the elevator going up to the floor of the building on Adderly Street where he and Alex Boraine were chairing hearings.

In his arms was a large bouquet of flowers. He told me, with great excitement, that they were flowers for the unsung secretarial staff who were supporting his work behind the scenes. We chatted, the doors opened, and he sailed off to deliver his flowers of thanks. Moments later we were in a dreary room hearing testimony of atrocities and tragedy.

Watercolor drawing of stained glass window in St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town
Window in St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. Watercolor by Sylvia Everett

What did this say to me? At the core of his life was a delight in the individual lives around him. At the core of his mission was the belief that every human being is precious in God’s eyes. It is from this bed-rock conviction that his work of forgiveness and reconciliation arose. He only tried to live that out every day.

It sticks in my mind to this day what was told to me by one of his friends—that he began each day by praying for each priest in his care, along with their families. Each one was precious. Each one was his responsibility. Each one deserving of respect and care.

And so this light has now expanded beyond the confines of our universe and we are all the better for it. I am grateful he touched my life, grateful he touched so many. The light continues and the darkness cannot shut it out.

I close with our little Christmas reflection for this year:

Within the treadmill of a heart-ached longing world

We glimpse arrivals daily of a New Beginning—

A babe, whose wisdom once again returns in aging years of wonder, awe, and gratitude,

A work of wood, the gift of trees who are our lungs, of limbs once tortured by the wind, offering up the grain of patient perseverance,

A swirl of colored glass and stone, the iridescence of the elements extracted from earth’s blazing womb,

A home, desire of refugees and wanderers, a gift now settled, beacon of a hope to share with all the world,

A sacred space where souls renewed might sing, might pray, might nurture up compassion for a suffering world,

A book whose words ignite our minds to wander universes yet unborn.

And so the mirror of this season shines upon us as we move from waiting thankfulness to yet another step in care for this amazing world.


God walks with us.

4 thoughts on “Giving Thanks for Desmond Tutu”

  1. Dear Bill,
    thank you so much for your memories of Desmond Tutu who really was a great man and beautiful spiritual presence!
    We have had an impressive online birthday party zoom presentation on Ocotber 7 th with the launch of a book in memory of him: Ecumenical Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu. He was lying in bed, very weak, but happy, at the end thanking and blessing us all with his smile.

    I shall always remember his sermon on the occasion of his receiving the Bonhoeffer Prize for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission some time in 2006 or so in the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche in Berlin. He mentioned the complaint that the whites took the land from the natives in Africa and just gave them the Bible in exchange, meaning a bad deal. He jubilated in his highest pitched voice that this was actually the best deal: “They gave us the best gift, the Bible, God’s message of love and justice regardless of the color of anybody’s skin. Halleluja!” The congregation laughed in recognition of the truth.

    I remember receiving him some time in 1993 for a major presentation and discussion in that same church together with his wife Leah. Before that event took place he urgently had to return for consultations with Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk because of problems in the preparation of the elections. So instead his wife Leah gave us a talk which was very well received. My wife and I were just very sorry for not having him grace our dinner table too.
    Such is life.

    He was a mover and shaker of people in his overwhelming joyfulness in the vain of “repent, the kingdom of God is near”.
    God bless his memory in South Africa and world-wide!

    Joy to the World,
    Love and Justice,

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