Modern Hero – Desmond Tutu

We’ve lost several cultural heroes in recent weeks: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Betty White, and now Sidney Poitier. The heroes we select guide our lives as surely as the Star of Bethlehem guided the Magi to the newborn Christ-child. Where we end up on a trip depends on which signs we follow. Pick the wrong sign and end up someplace you didn’t intend to go. Desmond Tutu was a hero worth following. His contributions toward peace among individuals, cultures, and nations are nearly as numerous as the stars.

Signs and Heroes Lead and Mislead

The signs we follow dictate the geographical destinations we reach. The heroes we follow, in part, dictate the people we become. As a follow-up to the article I wrote last week about our need for more civility, I’m going to focus on a few articles about some of my heroes – people whose lives have inspired me. People who practiced civility in many and various ways. These people have influenced what I believe and the decisions I’ve made. Some will be well known to you, stars that they are in our culture. Others will be largely unknown beyond my network of family, friends, and colleagues.

We do well to pick our heroes carefully. Who we admire and emulate shapes our character, which in turn influences the paths we take. Those paths determine our destinations in life. Our prisons are full of young people who followed the wrong crowd, who chose the wrong heroes. There are, of course, many complex reasons a young person winds up in prison. Some of those reasons are our collective negligence in providing our youth safe, nurturing, effective communities. Which heroes we admire and try to imitate play a significant part in shaping our character.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu strikes me as one hero worth following, though I only know him through what I’ve read about him. The thing that most impressed me in the many tributes I read about this giant of a man, was how many commented on his spirit of joy. He of all men had reason to be discouraged, bitter, depressed, and sour. But he wasn’t. Time after time, he chose hope over defeat and joy over despair.

A Jesuit priest, Anthony Egan, recalls his encounter with the Archbishop. He was celebrating his ordination and the first celebration of mass at a Cape Town restaurant when Desmond Tutu interrupted their conversation. “I believe congratulations are in order,” Desmond Tutu said. One of Egan’s friends knew the Archbishop from work they’d done together in conflict mediation. When he saw Desmond at another table in the same restaurant, he took it upon himself to inform Desmond of the occasion for his group’s celebration. The Archbishop left his dinner companions to congratulate a new priest of a different tradition.

Small Connections Yield Big Results

Author, life coach, and motivational speaker Kathi Laughman wrote her own tribute to the amazing Archbishop. She told a story of a friend of hers whose path crossed his in a simple, but profound way. Jo Ann Rotermund reached out to the Archbishop via social media when she was preparing to publish The Forgiveness Habit – An Action Plan for Healing Ourselves and the World. She wanted to thank him for his influence on her life. Because of that contact, Desmond Tutu wrote the forward to her book about the power of forgiveness.

His biography in a few giant steps from his birth October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, South Africa to his death December 26, 2021, in Cape Town, South Africa:

  • Best known for his efforts to end apartheid and work for human rights.
  • Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg 1985 to 1986
  • Archbishop of Cape Town 1986 to 1996
  • Awards include Nobel Peace Prize (1984), Fulbright Prize (2008) Gandhi Peace Prize (2007) Albert Schweitzer Prize (1986), and Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009)
  • Books published include The Book of Joy, No Future without Forgiveness, The Book of Forgiveness.
  • Appointed by President Nelson Mandela in 1996 to Chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Bold Faith

In my opinion, what makes Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu a hero is the way his faith gave him the courage to boldly, publicly, and persistently confront injustice, while also investing equal effort to prompting people to forgive, reconcile and experience joy-filled lives. That, seasoned with his propensity for finding joy himself in the midst of the most horrific and dangerous situations, made him a man I greatly admire.

The internet is full of stories about this giant. Here are a few links to more tributes to the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu:
The Nobel Prize 
K Love
BBC News
NPR Coverage of the funeral

Let it be noted that, at his request, his coffin was the cheapest plain pine one available. He wanted to avoid any ostentatious display.  Rest in Peace. RIP.

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