A Person for All Seasons

Last week in my column, I said I was going to be looking on the horizon for the color “purple”. Little did I know it would turn out to be the purple vestments of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This was to be a typical “end of the year” summary type of article, an “all but the kitchen sink” kind of conclusion to a year that begged for a benediction. But I had none, really.

I woke on Sunday, to ready myself for the drive back to the island. And I saw it. Desmond had died on Boxing Day, a final joke perhaps. With that knowledge of his death at 90 years of age, I had the long drive to ponder its meaning to me.

Is it luck, providence, or just the way it goes? It all depends on your worldview, how you think this thing called “life” is wired. It was my job for a number of years, before becoming a priest, to interview a wide swath of people about what sense they made out of their experience of living in this world. It was called a faith development interview, as they recounted their journey in life and revealed what meaning they had found.

It was a great job there at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. I was much more interested in the stories of the people I was listening to than in the research of “scoring” of their cognitive structural stages through which they made decisions, found value, and assigned worth. And that was my problem, or gift, again depending on perspective. I was more interested in people, their mystery, as opposed to the data they presented to our cognitive stage theory. It eventually led me out of the academy to a more clinical playground.

Back to luck. providence, or the way it is. I was serving as the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, at the time the largest Episcopal parish in the United States. At my age and experience, I should have never had this job, but vacuum has always been my friend. We were “in-between” Deans, it’s called an interim. In this strange time, era, or error, an assignment came my way that was either the luckiest day of my life, or a providential grant of favor. Your choice.

Desmond Tutu was coming to the United States on a fund-raising tour, and he was specifically coming to Atlanta, as he was to receive an award from the Martin Luther King Center. The call came from Bishop Swing of California who was arranging his tour. Bishop Child, of Atlanta, referred it to me. Would the Cathedral like to host Bishop Tutu on a Sunday? Does a bear play the Pope in the woods? my scribal gloss!

It turned out that Bishop Tutu was going to be going about the southeast and I would serve as his chaplain during his time. Excitement was an understatement of my reaction but I had a number of surprises to face during his visit.

First, as soon as his visit was announced, we began to receive threats to his life. At the time, I found it shocking, as I had been squirreled away in the proverbial ivory tower. Some were clearly people spouting bile from their basic unhappiness with no intent. Others were detailed with scary specificity. I learned that this is nothing new for the Arch, as he is called. When I first met him upon his arrival at the Cathedral early on a Sunday morning, he emerged from a limo in the center of the horseshoe drive in front of the Cathedral off Peachtree. Camera crews lined the driveway, numbering about as many as the security attached to the Bishop.

Desmond and I embraced, and then turned to go into the Cathedral. Suddenly, his eyes caught some children playing to the side. He broke from the entourage that engulfed him to go say “hello” to the kids. That became my image of his presence, a child-like joy in the moment that was infectious amidst the officious protocol. I followed him as did his security force, waiting for his informal greeting to conclude, shifting back to the slow movement into the Cathedral for the waiting procession.

We had bomb-swept the building early in the morning, and had security positioned at strategic points. He came to my office and we talked briefly, with me asking him if he ever thought hard about the threats on his life. He giggled and told me “no”, as he confessed that he was a bit fatalistic about it. I mused aloud that with his small size, 5’5″, against my 6’3″ linebacker physique, it would probably be me to catch the bullet. He laughed loudly, scrunching up his nose like a mischievous child, and said, “I choose my chaplain’s wisely!”, getting the last laugh.

Prior to his arrival, I learned another thing about hosting Bishop Tutu. He had a full schedule of touring that would take him all over the southeast, but it began here in Atlanta. His schedule was arranged by Bishop Swing, but he was pausing to accept an award from the Martin Luther King Center, the Non-Violence Prize. With that, Mrs. Coretta Scott King thought that she had control of his schedule. I was caught in between a bishop in California and a Queen in Atlanta. It was not going to end well, I feared.

I called my friend and former teacher, Dr. Joe Roberts, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Mrs. King wanted Bishop Tutu to preach at Ebenezer and he was scheduled to be at the Cathedral to preach. What were we to do?

First off, my mama, did not raise her first-born to be a fool. I know how to play a bad hand of poker that you are dealt: every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser (thanks to Kenny Rogers).

Joe (did I mention he was my teacher) insisted that Bishop Tutu’s proper place on Sunday morning was the civil rights “Cathedral” of Ebenezer, where Martin King pastored and preached. I countered and reminded him that Bishop Tutu was an Anglican bishop, and rightly should be in the Episcopal Cathedral. He then played his trump card, the Queen of Hearts, reminding me that Mrs. King’s award is the reason he was here. I then reminded him of how important the Blessed Sacrament was to him and that a bishop would be desirous of Holy Communion on a Sunday, which I bet was not on the menu at his house.

We settled the dispute by agreeing that he would preach, then celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the Cathedral on Peachtree at 9 AM and then would be whisked down to Sweet Auburn to preach at Ebenezer. Amazing what compromise can do when motivated by mutual respect, with just a dash of fear.

The Sunday morning went like clockwork, with Bishop Tutu preaching and celebrating at his Episcopal cathedral, receiving his communion, honoring his Anglican identity. Then, we would go to the hallowed hall of civil rights, Ebenezer, where he would ascend the pulpit to deliver a rousing sermon, appropriately there in the shadow of Dr. King’s spirit. It was a blessing to see him fit perfectly into both the high sacramentality of the Buckhead Cathedral and the spirit-driven worship of Ebenezer. Truly, a person for all seasons.

Interestingly, while he was in Atlanta, the Church in South Africa was voting and confirming the decision to make him the Archbishop of Cape Town, the first black to hold that role. In our trade, such a thing is referred to as “elevation” though Desmond would see it more as widening his responsibility. It would give him for leverage in continuing his amazing work of reconciliation between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. During his tenure, he would return to Atlanta for both a sabbatical and later upon retirement, as a Visiting Professor at Emory.

Finally, I learned about joy from Bishop Tutu. His giggle, chortle, guffaw, and laugh….but mostly a giggle were infectious. He could get serious, deadly serious about human rights. It started with the rights of black people in apartheid South Africa, but he extended the scope of his attention beyond his homeland, and he widened it to gender and sexual orientation. His eyes were focused in a way that let you know that he meant business. But just beneath the surface lurked a readiness for joy.

That was a needed lesson for me, as I would get wrapped up in some serious business about civil rights, or justice, and I could easily lose my “self” in the drama. Humor has a way of keeping one connected, to avoid self-righteousness, and high-headed prancing. There is one moment in an interview in which the reporter queries Desmond about his astonishing popularity. He giggles to himself, and then displays his humor in full force: “I think that I am lucky to have a name like Tutu, it gets people’s attention.” Perfect. I have tried to nurture my sense of humor, and often have thought of him as my guide for joy.

On New Year’s Day, the Church in South Africa will be saying their goodbyes to their Arch. I have been moved by so many people’s tribute to his impact upon their lives personally and on our world spiritually. I count myself blessed to have bumped up against the spirit of this person, who demonstrated the power of integrating both a radical commitment to justice, while keeping one’s sense of humor. “I choose my chaplains wisely!” It still makes me laugh.

Desmond Tutu…..rest in peace and rise in glory. Blessed be his memory.

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