Growing up in Cape Town my parents were members of St Georges Cathedral, an Anglican church, and we attended mass regularly. This being the 80’s and 90’s, the Archbishop at the time was Desmond Tutu.
Being quite young, my universe was relatively small. My world was basically my home, school and friend’s houses. I didn’t really comprehend the idea of the greater world and I was yet to learn of the government’s segregation policies and indeed the reputation that preceded this gentle man.
My memories of him start as a small man in a purple cassock with a giant cross hanging low on his chest. (I probably remember this since it was at my eye level) He had a very quiet, unassuming yet large presence, wonderfully soft hands and the most delightfully infectious giggle.
As I grew older I started to recognise there was something unique about him and there was more behind the peaceful calm that surrounded him and those in the same room. He never seemed aloof or unapproachable, and it seemed difficult to wipe the grin off his face.
I remember going to midnight mass services for Christmas and Easter and the congregation being entranced by his sermons. I can’t recall now anything he said, but I distinctly remember the manner of his delivery. His enthusiasm was second to none and his tone danced around his words with an effortless joy. He would also conclude every delivery with a whisper. Whenever he removed the microphone and descended the pulpit to the altar, barely an eyelash fluttered in the congregation. Such was the power of his conviction.
I remember after one particular mass, my mum wanted to take a photo of him with my sister and I. This was back in the day of good old fashioned 35mm film cameras. Being more than happy to participate he stood in the middle of us two, and instead of saying ‘smile’ or the ever popular ‘cheese’ he enthusiastically bubbled out ‘say money!’ This proved even better at achieving quality grins.
I learned more of his bravery and activism in my teens, declaring in 1988 that “We refuse to be treated as the doormat for the government to wipe its jackboots on” and risking jail for calls to boycott municipal elections in protest. The many photos of him marching through the city centre standing up for human rights and equality brought home just how courageous and outspoken he was in a dangerous environment, while keeping his preaching in church to the Gospels.
It was difficult for me to marry the legend of ‘The Arch’ and the awe he inspired, not just locally but internationally, to this caring man. His humility and humour were of such humble power and show a kind of strength we can all aspire to.
As a student in film school years later I was assisting on a shoot within the Cathedral itself. Being a mid-week afternoon the building was empty except for a couple of tourists and staff members. While setting up a shot near the altar, around a corner, we were aware of a group walking passed our crew. I was about to let them know what we were doing and field anticipated questions when I saw it was Tutu himself casually strolling by. We greeted each other and he carried on walking, probably to the vestry or attending a meeting in one of the offices. I didn’t think much of it until another crew member, whose star-struck jaw was just about on the floor, looked at me shocked and asked if that was in fact Tutu.
Just talking about these memories with my mother recently she mentioned that my grandfather served with Tutu on the South African Council of Churches in the 70’s. Following my grandfather’s death later that decade Tutu continued to send my grandmother a bunch of flowers and a personally signed card for her birthday every year without fail.
To me this memory serves as an inspiration. Even though he must have been in very high demand, he still took the time to pass on love and joy at every opportunity. This, coupled with the memory of his approachability, proves we can all be exactly the same way. Instead of being wrapped up in our busy lives, it’s a lesson to take time to consider others in our everyday actions. This should be his legacy, of kindness and small mercies we can all achieve daily to make the world that much brighter.
He leaves us with the blessing of once having him, and the challenge to do more.
There is no future without forgiveness – Desmond Tutu
Hamba kahle Arch. Ngiyabonga ka khulu.
(Go well, Arch. Thank you very much)