ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU
BY WENDY SCHUMAN
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who turned 89 on Oct. 7, is one of the most recognized and beloved spiritual leaders on the planet. He’s one of those rare individuals whose very presence exudes joy and compassion.
“The Arch,” as he’s known affectionately, is renowned for his role in ending the brutal apartheid regime in his native South Africa and for speaking out on human rights throughout the world. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he’s described on the Nobel website as “a living symbol in the struggle for liberation, someone who articulated the suffering and expectations of South Africa’s oppressed masses.”
Despite the violence perpetrated against the Black population of South Africa, Desmond Tutu’s adherence to nonviolence never wavered. His role in South Africa was pivotal.
“I never doubted that we were going to be free because, ultimately, I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.”
In 1990, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, freed after 27 years in prison, negotiated with the white government led by F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid. In 1994 Mandela made history as the first Black president of the newly democratic multiracial Republic of South Africa. Tutu was the mediator among different groups and moved the process forward.
The Arch’s accomplishments have been many—but perhaps his most remarkable was chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, appointed by Mandela. The commission investigated past human rights abuses during apartheid and offered limited amnesty to those who confessed their complicity. “We had the most devastating revelations of ghastly atrocities,” he has said. “But even these torturers remained children of God, with the possibility of being able to change.” Through the strength of Tutu’s faith and compassion, he was able to bring together both sides to start to heal the racial divide and unite the country.
“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and to be free from the past.”
To forgive doesn’t mean to forget, he points out. But it means letting go of hatred and revenge, and not losing sight of the other person’s humanity. “Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and to be free from the past,” Tutu explained in The Book of Joy.
Although Tutu retired from his position as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, he has never stopped speaking out about political and human values, sharing his message of love, equality, and forgiveness. Many of his ideas and stories have been put into book form via a collaboration with author and publisher Douglas Abrams of Idea Architects, an innovative book and media agency working with visionaries who are creating a wiser, healthier, and more just world.
In his Zoom interview with GRAND, Doug Abrams spoke about his relationship with Archbishop Tutu and the impact that Arch has had on the world.
“I’ve had the incredible privilege of working with Archbishop Tutu for 20 years,” says Doug. “I heard him speak when I was in college. He was this incredible towering, moral figure.” Years later, as a writer, editor, and publisher, Doug got in touch with him. “He’d written books on his political values, and I invited him to write God’s Dream as a way of transmitting his spiritual values.”
Doug wanted to find out what made the Archbishop tick. He wanted to see, for example, what a man of his moral stature was like driving in traffic. He actually got that opportunity one day in Jacksonville, Florida. The Archbishop was there as a guest lecturer, and Doug was interviewing him as he drove, trying to gather his pearls of wisdom on how he put his spiritual ideas into practice.
Then it happened—a car suddenly cut him off, and the Archbishop had to swerve to get out of the way. Doug recalls, “He reacted with the fear response that we all have, and he goes, ‘Well! You know, there are some incredible drivers!’ And I said to him, ‘Okay, what happened? What just went through your mind?’ And he said, ‘Well, I did get afraid. I did get startled. But then I thought to myself, maybe this driver is on the way to see his spouse in the hospital, or his wife is giving birth.’” Instead of reacting with road rage, the Archbishop was able to reframe the incident, shift his perspective, and come up with a compassionate response. “He was able to return to what he calls ‘our shared humanity’ and to see our connection with one another,” says Doug.
What emerges from this incident is the basic foundation of the Archbishop’s approach to coping with negative emotions like fear, anger, and despair. It comes not from putting on a happy face but accessing a deep wellspring of compassion—of seeing that we are not alone in our pain, but that we share it with all human beings.
The Arch and the Dalai—Two Great Souls Get Together
In 2015 Doug Abrams brought together the Archbishop with another global spiritual hero—His Holiness the Dalai Lama—to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 8oth birthday and to talk about how to find joy in the face of suffering, which ultimately became The Book of Joy. They met in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s home in exile, and for nearly a week these two old friends explored how to live a life of joy in spite of adversity. They also laughed, cried, prayed, and even danced together to “We Are the World.”
Arch Nearly Didn’t Survive to Adulthood
It’s amazing that the Archbishop made it to where he is today. He nearly didn’t survive his childhood.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born to a poor family in 1931 in Klerksdorp in racially segregated South Africa. His middle name means “life,” perhaps a foreshadowing of his amazing resilience. Two of his brothers died in infancy, and Desmond was sickly from birth. He had polio as a child, which caused his right arm to be weak and atrophied, and he was once hospitalized for severe burns. His parents valued education, and his father became a primary school principal. Although he was baptized as a Methodist, the family later converted to the Anglican Church.
Desmond wanted to study medicine but couldn’t afford the tuition. He married his wife, Leah, and became a teacher. But as apartheid grew stricter and more onerous—Black children were forced to receive a “Bantu” education to prepare them to be servants—he and Leah wanted a better life for their children. Desmond became an ordained Anglican minister in 1960, and Leah trained as a nurse. Tutu showed such brilliance and passion for the ministry that he was sent to study at King’s College London along with his family. He reveled in the freedom from apartheid (“There was racism in England, but we did not feel it,” he said) and ministered to a white congregation in Surrey.
In official church capacities, he traveled widely in Europe, Africa, and the U.S., learning about liberation movements and honing his ability to relate to people in all their infinite variety. Eventually, he moved up to the highest level in the Anglican Church in South Africa, as the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. He oversaw the introduction of women priests and became deeply involved in freeing his country from apartheid. He has gone on to champion gender and racial equality and human rights movements around the world.
The amazing thing is that in spite of all the obstacles and suffering he has endured—polio as a child, prostate cancer more recently, and, of course, apartheid—Tutu has managed to consistently express joy. You look at his face, glowing with joy and humor, and you feel there is goodness in the world.
Watch a tribute to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s life and work. Listen to former South African President Nelson Mandela, other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, and inspiring achievers speak about the leadership of Archbishop Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa in the film Just Call Me Arch.
Be Like ‘Arch’: How the Archbishop’s Teachings Can Help Us Right Now
How can we learn to adopt a positive attitude in a world where stress, anger, anxiety, and sadness are rampant?
Find Meaning in Adversity
“Something the Archbishop said has always stayed with me: Suffering can either embitter us or ennoble us,” Doug Abrams recalls. “He’s been able to take that suffering, whether it was illness or the struggle against apartheid, and find meaning in it and use it as a source of motivation to benefit others.” Suffering is part of the human condition, says the Archbishop, but it can become a tool of transformation. He often points out that Nelson Mandela used his years of suffering in prison at Robben Island to grow and develop into a person who could unite his country.
Shift Your Perspective
Recognize that heartache and upheaval are only a very small part of actually what is happening in the world. Focus on the acts of kindness that are taking place. There are many people who care. Doug Abrams notes, “There’s that extraordinary picture of doctors and nurses who were flying to New York to help with the coronavirus pandemic.” Listen to the voices that pull us toward compassion, generosity, and love. He cites what the Archbishop says in The Book of Joy: When we’re able to shift beyond self-preoccupation and really be of service to something greater than ourselves, whether that’s other individuals or the community at large, or in his case, the anti-apartheid struggle, then you shift out of that self-limiting perspective. “You shift into a broader understanding of life. It’s not that the heartache goes away, but it doesn’t become all-consuming.”
Keep Your Sense of Humor
There’s a saying that “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” The Archbishop often uses humor to defuse tense situations. Not belittling humor that puts others down, he emphasizes, but humor that allows you to laugh at yourself. In The Book of Joy, he notes that laughter “uplifts us, allows us to recognize and laugh about our shared humanity, our shared vulnerabilities, our shared frailties.”
You could write a book about forgiveness, and the Archbishop did—with his daughter Mpho Tutu. In The Book of Forgiving, they write, “If we choose to retaliate, the cycle of revenge and harm continues endlessly, but if we choose to forgive, we can break the cycle and we can heal.” During his work at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Archbishop saw the ability of victims to forgive their torturers –and of former torturers to transform their lives—as “the greatest evidence of God’s power and love.”
The Arch says, “Where some people see a half-empty cup, you can see it as half-full.” Being grateful for simple things—having a bed, a shower, clean clothes, food, and a home, or simply for waking up in the morning—moves us away from focusing on what we lack to the broader view on what we have. Expressing your gratitude to others makes both them and you feel better.
Celebrate Ubuntu—Your Connection to Others—Even When You’re Alone
Archbishop Tutu’s core philosophy is what he calls, in the Bantu language, Ubuntu—the African concept that we are who we are through one another. “We are one family,” he writes in God Has a Dream, “made for interdependence. When you have ubuntu, you are generous, compassionate. [Through your abundance] you can make up for what is lacking for others. We are all children of God, and in God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies.”
This idea that we are made for togetherness is especially difficult right now during COVID when many of us are alone and isolated. Often, we can’t see our children or grandchildren. How do we feel this sense of belonging when we can’t physically be with people?
Doug Abrams addressed this: “It’s very painful for us to be separated from one another and not to be able to hug each other and kiss and be connected. [But] Ubuntu is something that exists in your heart. It’s not dependent on you being physically present with someone. You can certainly experience ubuntu through Zoom or on a phone call. But even if you can’t connect in any way, you can be together with the love and the connection that you have with them in your heart.”
He gave an example: Archbishop Tutu often had insomnia, and when he had a hard time sleeping, he would think about all the other people around the world who were also unable to sleep and send love and
blessings to them. And in this way, he felt connected to their common humanity.
A Grandfather’s Inspiring Words
Archbishop Tutu and his wife Leah have four children together, Trevor, Theresa, Naomi, and Mpho. Although he has a loving relationship with his family, Doug says it was very hard for his children growing up, because Tutu was traveling so much for the anti-apartheid movement. “They had to share their father with the world,” he says. The Archbishop told him the story about returning from England to South Africa, where they were second-class citizens and couldn’t give their children a good education. So they had to send their kids to a boarding school in Swaziland and, as a result, break up the family again.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
The Tutus have many grandchildren and are doting grandparents. The grandchildren, now grown, seem to be following in their grandfather’s activist footsteps. This past summer, they released a video message in which they repeated his famous words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
The younger Tutus made a video to support the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and in honor of Youth Day in South Africa. Youth Day commemorates the Soweto Uprisings in 1976 when schoolchildren protested against being taught in Afrikaans, which Tutu’s grandchildren described as “the language of the oppressor.”
Lungi Morrison, one of the granddaughters, said in the article in The National, “This moment in our history is about truly showing up, mindful of the ideals so many generations like our parents and grandparents paid forward for us.”
How He Lives Today
After a storied life of traveling the globe, meeting world leaders and presidents, lecturing widely, and receiving international honors, Archbishop Tutu has mostly retired from public life. Like many retired couples, he and his wife Leah live in a retirement cottage—theirs is in Hermanus, in the Southern Cape. On September 9th they experienced a house fire around dawn, possibly caused by a faulty gas heater. They sustained no injuries and were rescued by firefighters to whom they sent their gratitude: “We cannot thank the staff at the village enough for their kindness and quick action; or members of the fire department, unsung heroes, on whose courage one leans in the most difficult circumstances. God bless them all,” the Tutus said.
The Arch on today’s struggles
Even though he is retired, Archbishop Tutu doesn’t hold back his opinions—he speaks his mind and even calls to task those he fought for in the struggles against apartheid. Recently, he and the two other living South African Anglican Archbishops issued a joint statement on Covid, writing, in part:
“If proof was required of the oneness and interdependence of the human family, the threat posed by this virus – and people’s response to it – is providing it. To stop the virus from spreading will demand fundamental changes in the behavior of all of us.
“When we start seeing others as the enemy, it’s very dangerous [because] then we can resort to violence and civil unrest.
“The virus has no boundaries – it cuts across all communities, rich and poor, in north, south, east, and west. Only mutual love and care for one another will get us through the crisis.”
Response to divisiveness in the U.S.
Doug was asked if he knew what the Archbishop may be thinking about what’s going on in the United States right now with racial and political divisions tearing the country apart. He responded, “Arch is very saddened by the fact that America, which is a moral beacon to the world, is not currently living up to its own ideals. I think he would call us back to our values of equality and justice and remind us that not only is America’s election and America’s future important for America – it’s important for the world.”
Doug added, “When we start seeing others as the enemy, it’s very dangerous [because] then we can resort to violence and civil unrest.
“We need leaders who lead with their minds and their hearts, who are connected to their humanity and connected to our shared humanity.”
“Ultimately, we need leaders who lead us into unity. And we need to keep our own hearts open and recognize that, even in our battle for a more perfect union and a nation that is righteous and treats all people with justice and equality, we share a common humanity.”
He recalls that Arch told him something surprising: “Even during the apartheid regime he would pray for the president every day, and for his well-being. So, when he ultimately met with him and they had to create work together to create a post-apartheid nation, he was meeting him not as his enemy, but ultimately as his friend. And I think that is just this extraordinary recognition that our similarities are much greater than our differences.”
Archbishop Tutu is an extraordinary example of what a moral leader looks like. Says Doug, “He is the luminous example of what we need in our leaders. We need leaders who lead with their minds and their hearts, who are connected to their humanity and connected to our shared humanity.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Wendy Schuman
Wendy Schuman is a proud grandmom of four and a freelance writer who makes her home in West Orange, NJ. She is a former editor of Parents Magazine and Beliefnet.com. Wendy and her husband helps a new generation of college grads in Millennials in Wonderland. To learn more about Grad Life Choices, their pro bono coaching program, click here