Desmond Tutu died on 26th December 2021. He was a great South African. His claim to fame was not as a Zulu warrior, or as a rugby player, or as a cricketer, although he did play cricket. Yet he did climb to have an importance on the world stage which few can match.
Although he had huge health problems in early life and into his teenage years, he ended his schooling with grades which would have enabled him to go to medical school. His parents could not afford the fees, so, like his father, he went into school teaching – nothing very dramatic here.
Let us meet him in later life. He is a recognised national advocate for human rights of the black majority in his country. Without much doubt he has become the most articulate spokesperson against poverty, racism, xenophobia, and corruption in his homeland. The unfairness of the Apartheid system of government is being laid bare. Eventually it crumbles and he is seen as a leading worker in the demolition squad.
In the heady days which ensue Tutu has a major role, as he is appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. By boldly pointing to previous short-comings in both white and black people he carries through a process which has few parallels in world politics.
International recognition ensues–Britain grants him a Companion of Honour. He becomes a Nobel Peace Prize winner and other accolades follow.
Can we find the key that led to Desmond’s rise to prominence? In his health-challenged adolescence he was given a minor task in the worship of his local church by the Anglican Priest, Trevor Huddleston from Britain. Trevor spotted the potential of the lad and plied him with books to help him through his convalescence. They talked of their shared vision of an end to Apartheid. And something else. Trevor was a man of prayer and Desmond by some spiritual osmosis learned to be a man of prayer too. Eventually like Trevor he felt called into the ministry of the church and in time became the Archbishop of Cape Town; the leader of the Anglican Church in the country. One of Tutu’s biographers describes Huddleston as the biggest influences on his life.
Some of us see Tutu as a contemporary–he, my wife, and I were born in successive years. Few of us can hope to emulate his achievements in the bear-gardens of national and international politics. There is still time, however, for our prayer-lives to be encouraged by his.