Lessons from the Arch: Learning from Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu at a climate justice rally in Durban, South Africa, 2011 | Kristen Opalinski/Wikimedia Commons

By Meredith Tilp

In 1984 I was the Africa grants associate for Trinity Church Wall Street. The first time I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in the rector’s dining room at the parish office building. Having lived in the Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province of South Africa) in 1979 as a teacher, I was a little apprehensive, but confident, as I knew the Xhosa words to say.

The author and the Arch

Tutu walked immediately to the bartender to exchange pleasantries. He started there — not with the VIPs.

I said, “Molo mfundisi, kunjani na?” (Hello teacher, how are you?).

He gave his contagious grin and said, “Nidiyaphila unjani wena khona, usithetha isiXhosa!” (I am well, how are you? So you speak Xhosa!).

Mustering my best clicks (the palatal click is essential in Xhosa, and sounds like saying giddy up to a horse). I said, “kancinci,” (a little).

There began a lifetime of learning near “the Arch,” as everyone called him. I saw him at least 20 times in South Africa and the United States, and have saved the numerous letters and handwritten notes we exchanged. My theory and practice of teaching has been infused with his firsthand lessons about compassion, empathy, and justice.

His words and actions teach: visiting a priest in Pretoria Prison whose only offense had been conducting a funeral; walking down a Johannesburg street with soldiers’ rifles trained on us; listening to his sermon at my church, St. Peter’s in Morristown, New Jersey, where he said to my parents, to my delight, “You have done a wonderful job.”

The Arch had it right: the tone, the humor, the focus on individual people, the message of hope despite horrific circumstances of living under apartheid. He didn’t say, “Do this!” He taught by example, with fierce courage and unwavering adherence to justice. He was Jesus on a skateboard around the world.

His spiritual life is contagious. On many occasions, his secretary Lavinia Crawford Brown would spirit him away for a rest and prayer. Waking up early for Morning Prayer with him, I had spiritual experiences of my own, reading the gospel, saying prayers for others, praying with him for a personal issue, which he never forgot. Tutu could be ferocious in a loving way, however, to the perpetrators of violence.

My favorite Tutu Prayer:

Disturb us O Lord
When we are too well-pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little.
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us O Lord
When with the abundance of things we possess,
We have lost our thirst for the water of life.
When, having fallen in love with time, we have ceased to dream of eternity and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

My message to students has always come directly from him: “Hate the behavior, not the person.” It was the concept that everyone, even the most wicked, was redeemable. He would say, “I pray for F.W. de Klerk every day.” The Arch charged fearlessly into an angry mob to save a person accused of collaborating with the authorities from being “necklaced,” burned to death by a flaming gasoline-soaked tire placed over his head. For me, he was taking the moral high ground, and teaching a vivid lesson in nonviolence.

Tutu’s Spirituality in Class

Fast forward to the years 2005-13, when I am a public high school teacher in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I made a conscious effort to take the Tutu lessons into my classroom. More than 75% of my students qualify for free, or reduced-priced lunches. They include Hispanics and Native Americans, Dreamers and those whose parents are undocumented.

During Christmastime 2018, sitting in St. Bede’s Church in Santa Fe, I began to feel deeply troubled by the federal government’s child separation policy; it was Christmas, after all! And Jesus was a refugee! I always try to engage my students in community endeavors — working at the homeless shelter, for instance, and in model legislatures. Using my government curriculum as the basis, I hatched a scheme to work at a rescue project for asylum-seekers in southern New Mexico.

This project was receiving, feeding, and providing bus and plane tickets to immigrants trying to join family members and sponsors around the nation. Support from St. Bede’s parishioners enabled us to raise several thousand dollars for meals and direct monetary gifts to the refugees. I enlisted the support of a wonderful local lawyer, a community organizer, and the Roman Catholic host organization that operated the rescue project and was receiving 90 refugees per week.

Neither the students nor I will ever forget watching as the first parade of 60 parents and their small children left the bus from the border patrol and walked toward us. Forming a circle, we all clapped and cheered and smiled and hugged them as they came in for the meal we had prepared. We had also helped buy cots for everyone and collected donated books and toys for the children. Our joy at helping was uplifting.

One beautiful young woman, Lara from Honduras, had a little boy named Eduardo. As my students and I were listening and translating their stories from Spanish to English, she recounted this.

“I escaped from Honduras and took the bus and walked the 1,500 miles to the US border. In Mexico. I was taken by the police and raped.”

I started sobbing, but my students took over because they understood. Some of their parents had lived the same life, and I hope I had conveyed some of the Arch’s love and compassion to them. All 35 refugee parents received $50 to $100.

I talked recently with Lara. She had gone to live with her brother in another state, and Eduardo was old enough to enter Head Start.

As we struggle with the pandemic, I have rejoined the effort to codify the lessons of Desmond Tutu and carry them forward both in Africa and at home. My current energy is devoted to the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in Cape Town and to my students and the current refugees who have again surged along the border

In Archbishop Tutu’s language, there is an expression “ubuntu.” It is a philosophy that permeates my being: “a person is a person through other people.” Though I am thousands of miles from my hut on a hillside in the Transkei-Eastern Cape of South Africa and years from the direct influence of the Arch, I am consistently reminded of his lessons in social justice and spirituality.

Meredith Tilp, a teacher in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has worked in education and public health in 25 African countries. She now loves to listen to the song “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba, complete with Xhosa clicks.


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