My first encounter with Archbishop Tutu was with Tutu the Rioter, the man who decades earlier led marches through the streets of South African cities with calls for justice in the face of the machine of violence. apartheid and became the nation’s moral compass. It was to become a moral compass for the world in the years that followed and that afternoon in late November 2011 I learned my first lesson from the Ark – Don’t be silent, don’t waste a moment.
Our role as faith leaders at COP17 was to provide a moral framework for conversations and to remind negotiators that they represent people and the environment, not just government interests. Tutu helped us build a foundation to stand on in the following weeks, enabling us to deliver a unified statement to the UN leadership, lead a civil society march through the streets of Durban, push back against the powers companies that threatened to derail the establishment of the framework for the Green Climate Fund. I knew I was in the middle of a transformative figure, wrapped up in a historic moment. But that was just one of many moments Tutu helped transform, one of many battles Tutu fought on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed people. His whole life was centered on a life of advocacy and action on behalf of those in need because that is what Christ calls us to. This was the second lesson I learned from the Ark – Strive to live the love of Christ in action in all that you do.
After our time together in Durban, our paths would cross a few more times before I left South Africa in 2014. In three years, I learned more from Tutu the rioter, but also from Tutu the thoughtful theologian, from Tutu the stirring talker, and Tutu the humble host. There were many layers to him and many lessons to learn from every aspect of his personality.
A few months after our stay in Durban, I was in Cape Town for a conference and decided to stop St. George’s Cathedral, where Tutu had served as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. He was leading a morning Eucharistic service, as he often did. His face immediately lit up when he saw me and after the service he invited me to join him for breakfast with a group from New York. What followed was a lively conversation about the role of the church in the public sphere. He urged us to reclaim a faith-based public witness as Americans, to lean to the margins in order to help lead our society away from the individualism that plagued us. He urged us to publicly embrace the gospel, namely the Sermon on the Mount, so that society would look to us and see that we were created for interdependence, that there is hope in the midst of all that we face if we face it together. That day I learn my third lesson from the Ark – Embrace the gospel so others can see that hope is alive when we embrace each other’s humanity.
The next time I was in Cape Town, my family was visiting from the United States. My father and I went to Saint-Georges for the Friday morning Eucharist, which Tutu again led. After the service, I presented it to my father and he was delighted. He told us we should take a picture together. I remember we were standing on either side of him, he scowled at me and said, “What are you doing?” You must be in the middle my dear, you are the rose between these two old thorns. We all laughed when the photo was taken. Then Tutu invited us to lunch. He arrived at the cafe below St George’s wearing a shirt that read ‘This is what the old man looks like’ – a perfect reflection of his humorous and cheerful temperament. Many jokes were shared that morning and I learned my fourth lesson from the Ark – Laugh often, live a joyful life, and don’t take yourself too seriously..