The culmination and highlight of my pilgrimage to South Africa was the magical day my friends and I spent in Cape Town with Archbishop Tutu.
Indeed, it was one of the greatest blessings of my life.
Archbishop Tutu is one of our greatest prophets. He’s been under death threat since he was a teenager. His journey is mythic—serving the churches throughout Africa during the 1970s and 1980s; his leadership in the World Council of Churches and the South African Council of Churches, and as bishop and archbishop; his public stand against the evil apartheid system; his speeches to millions, his endless call for justice; the funerals he officiated, the marches and prayer vigils he led, his visits to prisoners and their families, his civil disobedience; the times he intervened and saved those about to be killed; the many attacks and death threats he faced; his steadfast adherence to nonviolence; his ground-breaking work with the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission;” his global advocacy for justice with countless causes, individuals and organizations; his exemplary leadership; and throughout all of this–his daily prayer, underlying fidelity, and radiant peace and joy.
I remember hearing him speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. sometime around 1987. It was at the height of apartheid, and the world was waking up to its horrors. He had just come from Soweto, and spoke of an elderly woman he met there. She told him that she got up every night in the middle of the night for one hour to beg God solemnly for an end to apartheid. “I know we will win now,” he said through tears, “because God cannot resist the prayer of that poor old woman.”
We arrived on a beautiful Thursday morning at the Cape Town Waterfront, the plaza with shops, restaurants, boat trips and tours right on the ocean. It amazed me that the great man’s office was located in the heart of the tourist section, right next to the Robben Island Ferry, in a mall. A huge balcony from his office looked out over the packed shopping plaza and the waters.
We entered and there he was, Archbishop Tutu, short, bald, smiling, with a warm embrace. “Ah, you are not in jail!” he said with a laugh. First things first, he announced we would have a Eucharist together, his staff and friends, and my friends.
We read from Ephesians 3 on “the height and breadth and length and depth of the love of God.” After the Gospel, we went around the circle and offered our personal prayers, then we broke the bread and shared the cup. “May we become what we receive,” he said. A great blessing.
Then, he announced that he had catered a meal, and we were all welcome to brunch!
With coffee, quiche, croissants, and fruit in hand, I sat down with the great man and looked him in the eye. He spoke first.
“We do not have the right to give up this work,” he said. “Our sisters and brothers are suffering around the world, so we have to keep working for peace and justice till we die.” I was amazed to hear that he planned to leave the next day for Iran. He is relentless.
He spoke of the millions of squatters living in total poverty around Cape Town and elsewhere. “We have the ultimate first world wealth and the worst third world poverty, the biggest gap between rich and poor in the world. One percent of the money for war and nuclear weapons could feed and house these poor people. Sometimes I say to God, ‘What the heck is going on? Why don’t you do something?’”
I told him about our upcoming national plans for “Campaign Nonviolence,” how we were organizing demonstrations across the U.S. later this fall on war, poverty and environmental destruction, under the umbrella of Gandhi and King’s nonviolence. He interrupted me with a burst of laughter!
“I’m so glad I’m not God,” he said. “Think of the patience of God, waiting for us to get it, waiting for us to do something like this! So few people see that we’re all sisters and brothers!”
“Imagine what God went through during the Holocaust,” he continued, “waiting while some of his children killed his other children and there was nothing he could do. God is omnipotent and omnipresent but he has decided to gift us with the gift of freedom, to let us choose to accept goodness and love or not, and because God gave us this gift of freedom, God cannot intervene. So this omnipotent God is completely weak and powerless before the evil we do. This is the God we have. God is very weak. I am so glad I am not God and that God is God.”
We spoke about our mutual friend Fr. Michael Lapsley, Tutu’s work with Nelson Mandela and the Elders, his trip to Iran and an upcoming speech in London, our adventures in South Africa, meeting Winnie Mandela, our recent work together writing a foreword for a new edition of Sr. Helen Prejean’s book, Dead Man Walking, and many other topics. When I asked for advice, he said, “You’re doing great!”
“How do you keep going?” I asked.
“My favorite prophet is Jeremiah,” he answered. “Do you know why? Because he cries a lot!” Then he leaned close to me and whispered, “I cry a lot, too. I cry a lot, every day. But think how much God cries! We have a God who weeps. God weeps because we don’t get it, we don’t understand that we are all sisters and brothers. So I cry a lot and always have. But I also laugh a lot, too.” With that he let out an uproarious laugh.
Throughout the whole visit, he laughed. I presented him with a large photo book of pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a handmade blue and white blanket from New Mexico, which he promptly threw over his shoulders. “You need to come more often!” he said with a laugh.
After brunch, our conversation and photos, he put his arm around me and walked me to the door. “Never give up, John,” he said. “Never give up!”
Later, we flew back to Johannesburg, and on Sunday morning, returned to Soweto to attend Mass with several thousand people at Regina Mundi, the famous church which was the headquarters for much of the anti-apartheid movement. Fr. Ray spoke during the Mass, and Fr. Sebastian gave a beautiful sermon, but it was the singing that overwhelmed us. The entire crowd—thousands of people—sang and danced throughout the two hour Mass. I have never seen anything like it. We must have sung fifty hymns, all in the South African style of the freedom songs. In front of us, a row of kids sang in harmony and danced and waved their hands the entire time. I have never seen anyone, much less a group of kids, enjoy liturgy so much. It was as if I have never been to a celebration of the Eucharist before. Pure joy!
That night, on our flight back to the States, we were still high from the liturgy, the preaching, and the singing. But for me, it was the visit with Archbishop Desmond Tutu that touched me most.
“Never give up, never give up!” he said to me. South Africa has changed my life, and I want to honor the gift of these people, this land, and this leader by carrying on the struggle for justice and peace, come what may.