Tutu was truly a man to remember - Keith Roulston editorial
Almost lost in the hustle and bustle surrounding the holidays was the death of one of the 20th century’s iconic humans: retired-Bishop Desmond Tutu.
The funeral service for Bishop Tutu was held on Jan. 1 with the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner buried in a plain pine coffin, the cheapest available, at his request to avoid any ostentatious displays. He died Dec. 26 after 90 years of service to his country and the world.
“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, in a video message shown at a requiem mass. “South Africa has given us extraordinary examples of towering leaders of the rainbow nation with President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu... Many Nobel winners’ lights have grown dimmer over time, but Archbishop Tutu’s has grown brighter.”
I plead guilty to being among those who lived comfortable lives in Western nations, unaware of the good works of those like Mandela and Tutu. I wasn’t sure I agreed with the praise for Mandela before he was finally released after many years in prison by the white government in the late 1980s. It was only later, when he came to lead South Africa and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 that I looked closer at his record and came to truly admire him.
And it was only through the changes brought about by Mandela that I came to admire the work of Tutu, even though he had won the Nobel Prize nearly a decade earlier.
Tutu was the first Black Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996. He worked alongside a newly-released Mandela, leading negotiations to end apartheid in the country and to introduce a multi-racial democracy. As President of South Africa, Mandela chose Tutu to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.
As Chairperson of the Commission, Tutu articulated the Black community’s outrage at the ravages of apartheid and touchingly and profoundly demonstrated the depth of meaning of “ubuntu”, reconciliation and forgiveness.
But his work began far earlier. He admitted he wasn’t originally political. Until the white government overstepped its mark in opposing protest, he was apolitical. It was this change that made him become a minister, even though he already had a wife and several children. In December of 1960, Edward Paget ordained Tutu as an Anglican priest
In 1966, Tutu and his family moved to East Jerusalem, where he studied Arabic and Greek for two months at St George’s College. In January of 1970, Tutu left the seminary for a teaching post at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) in Roma, Lesotho. This allowed him to live closer to his children and offered twice the salary – one of the few times earthly rewards seemed to figure in his life.
In 1975, Tutu was named the dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg. He used his position to speak out on social issues, publicly endorsing an international economic boycott of South Africa over apartheid.
In 1981, while he was addressing 15,000 Black mourners at the funeral of the civil rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, the crowd set upon a suspected government agent and were intent on necklacing him (putting a burning tire around his neck). Tutu ran to the victim, threw himself across the prostrate man, and demanded the crowd cease their violence. As the crowd calmed, Tutu led the man to his own car.
He was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first Black African to hold the position. He emphasized a consensus-building model of leadership and oversaw the introduction of female priests.
Tutu never stopped fighting for his vision of a “Rainbow Nation” in which all races in post-apartheid South Africa could live in harmony. As Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu turned St. George’s into what is known as a “People’s Cathedral”, a refuge for anti-apartheid activists during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s when security forces brutally repressed the mass democratic movement.
When Mandela became the country’s first post-apartheid president he once called his friend: “Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
There are so many (men, mostly) who show examples of the power and authority that bad, inhumane behavior can bring. It’s good that now and then we have the lessons that good men like Bishop Tutu can teach us. Their example shouldn’t be overshadowed during a holiday that celebrates the best side of humanity.