Thursday, January 29, 2009

Spotlight: My Hero

The first sentence of my script was, "The name Desmond Tutu resonates richly with people all across the world," but I could guarantee that 90% of the 7,000 high school students assembled in the field house of the University of Maryland had no idea who the guy was.

If you are included in that 90%, let me be the first to tell you that Desmond Tutu is an archbishop from Cape Town, South Africa, 77 years old, and one of the most adorable people I have ever met.

But the man is more than his lovable name. As a vigorously anti-apartheid activist and an Anglican Archbishop emeritus, Tutu is incredibly knowledgeable on issues ranging far and wide, from the current Gaza conflict and the Vietnam War to what Mary said when the archangel Gabriel told her that she would bear God's son. 

Tutu was ordained to the priesthood in Johannesburg. In 1978, he left his post as Bishop of Lesotho to become the new General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches. This was the position from which he led a formidable movement for justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa. His tireless work was fully recognized in 1984, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1996, President Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the association set up to investigate human rights violations during apartheid. Since 1998, Tutu has been a visiting professor at several overseas universities and has published several books, the most recent of which is entitled God Has A Dream.

Right before I stepped onstage to introduce him, I grabbed a pen and burst out, "CanIpleasehaveyourautographplease?" He smiled obligingly, gently took the pen, and wrote on the back of my speech, "God bless you. Desmond." I can tell you, I nearly melted.

Tutu is a spectacularly charismatic speaker with calm amiability and warm South African accent that immediately puts people at ease. He connects with crowds artfully and quotes scripture effortlessly. He spoke about how, again and again, God chose young people to be, as he put it, "God's collaborators," citing examples like Jeremiah (a prophet), Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscan friars), and, of course, Mary (Jesus's mother). 

And yet, the strict and uptight manner one might expect from one who has spent nearly his whole life in the clergy is just not there. At one point, Tutu, assuming both roles in a conversation between God and Jeremiah, said, "Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." Jeremiah responds, "Oh, God. You don't seem to know very much about human biology." 

Desmond Tutu is one of those rare souls who radiates pure and simple joy to all those around him. Indeed, Tutu exemplifies the ideal religious leader: one who is at once deeply pious, inspirational, wholly morally upright, and a true advocate and activist for peace.

He stepped off the stage to a thunderous standing ovation. 90% of the people had just learned who Desmond Tutu was, and 100% loved him.