MOMENTS WITH THE MINISTER: Remembering a giant among us
We lost some giants this year. Charlie Watts, Olympia Dukakis, Cicely Tyson, Colin Powell, Sarah Weddington, Don Everly, Eric Carle, Hank Aaron, Hal Holbrook, Tommy LaSorda, DMX, Ed Asner, Nanci Griffith, E. O. Wilson, Harry Reid, John Madden and so many others. There were even giant Sequoias that succumbed to fires after surviving hundreds of them over thousands of years. For me, the one who stood with the greatest stature was only 5’4” tall, from a family with meager means, and was not considered accepted in his own community because of his race.
Desmund Mpilo Tutu grew up in South Africa, when apartheid (meaning apart) was the rule of the day. Blacks could work for Whites, but were to remain separate from them, and were relegated to the poorest neighborhoods, with the most limited opportunities for education, advancement, or property ownership.
Desmund Tutu was a pastor of profound influence. His sense of call to serve began early in his life. He and his mother were going somewhere on a narrow walkway when he was 5 or 6 years old. A White man was walking toward them on the same walkway. It was not only expected, but was the law, that a Black person must step off the walkway to allow a White person to pass. When they got closer to the person coming toward them, it was the White man who stepped off the walkway into the mud, doffed his hat toward Tutu’s mother, and allowed them to pass. Young Desmund asked his mother who that man was. She explained he was a priest. He told his mother he wanted to be like that man.
Tutu had aspirations to become a medical doctor, perhaps influenced by suffering from polio and tuberculosis, but the cost of tuition was too high. He began a teaching career, not becoming a member of the clergy for several more years and more education. Studying and serving the Church in England gave him a sense of life without apartheid and of the possibilities for living and serving together. He wrote a dissertation on Islam in West Africa, studied Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, and lived in Jerusalem for a brief time. He considered himself to be apolitical until much later in life.
When he was serving as a chaplain in 1968, at the University of Fort Hare, students held a sit-in to protest university policies concerning race. Students were surrounded by police with dogs when Tutu waded into the crowd to pray with them. It was the first time for him to witness the power of the state to suppress dissent. Through his prayer and the prayer of others, tensions subsided.
Desmund Tutu had a strong sense of everyone having value and significance, even those who abused them. Later, when he helped lead protests against apartheid, he did not put people down who opposed him. It came from an understanding of everyone having importance in the eyes of God, even as he engaged in challenging them to change.
I had the privilege of hearing Archbishop Tutu speak once in a large hall, another time in a church sanctuary. Even at a distance from the lectern where he spoke, it was easy to see a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and hear a playfulness in his voice. He often used humor in disarming ways, pointing out the disparities he saw or pointing toward the justice he worked toward.
He told a story of an area in South Africa where people would regularly use humor to challenge the wrongs of apartheid. There was one spot in the road where a sign had been put up that declared, “Natives Cross Here.” But the locals would regularly change the sign to read, “Cross Natives Here.” He laughed so heartily just telling the story that everyone in the room laughed.
The second time I heard him speak was after he had moved to Atlanta, GA, where he was being treated for cancer. It barely slowed him down. He met a young Atlantan, having a lot of fun talking with the boy. His new friend was so taken by him he asked the Archbishop if he would come to his grade school class on a day when they could invite someone special to speak. Tutu agreed and showed up right on time, as punctuality was always important to him. When the teacher answered his knock at her door, she was so shocked she said, “Oh my god!” To which Tutu said, “No, only a bishop!”
In making a point about apartheid, he once said, “Whites think the Black people want to drive them into the sea. What they forget is, with apartheid on the beaches – we can’t even go to the sea.”
Bishop Tutu’s moral courage showed more than once to stop violent acts. If a Black member of the community were to be accused of cooperating with the White police to tell on someone else’s actions, even if it were unfounded, they might be killed with a “necklace,” a tire forced over their arms and chest, filled with gasoline, and set on fire. Desmund Tutu stood in the breach on many occasions to stop the violence and mob rule.
Bishop Tutu’s sense of respect for others also showed up in his commitment to restorative justice, rather than retributive justice. That became the guiding light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he led. He understood that reconciliation could not happen without the truth coming out about horrific acts that had taken place during apartheid. It was only after confessing fully and truthfully to the families who had lost someone or to the person victimized that forgiveness could be expressed or reconciling acts could take place. It was out of telling the truth, painful as it was, that reconciliation could lead to healing. It is a principle central to the Christian faith that we often overlook or find too uncomfortable to exercise now.
Through Bishop Tutu’s compassionate leadership, we saw reconciliation happen for a nation and a people. He has been an exemplary model of commitment to justice and lovingkindness. As we see fractures within our own country, we may look to the example of Bishop Tutu’s sense of respect for others, his commitment to telling the truth, to his gentle humor to help us see a different perspective, and to the hope of reconciliation that can lead us to healing and wholeness. I am thankful for the forceful character of this giant who stood as tall as an ancient Sequoia. May he rest in peace and rise in power.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.