The Legacy of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu

Reflection written by Abigael Ajuma

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu was a dedicated campaigner for freedom, justice, equality, and peace in his birth country South Africa and the globe at large. The Arch, as he was commonly referred to as, died at the age of 90 on December 26th after he had been in poor health for several years.

Desmond Tutu was outspoken about the injustice of apartheid. As the first Black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, he led a delegation of church leaders to meet Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha, advising him to end apartheid. When the meeting yielded no results, he publicly endorsed an economic boycott of South Africa and civil disobedience to dismantle the repressive regime. In recognizing his efforts towards racial justice, Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

When the repressive apartheid regime officially ended in 1991, Desmond Tutu was a leader in the transition process to a democratic South Africa. He was charged by Nelson Mandela to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to help South Africans deal with their past by investigating the gross human rights violations perpetrated during the apartheid regime. Coining the term “rainbow nation” Tutu hoped and fought for a united post-apartheid South Africa. During his funeral on January 1st, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, praised Tutu as the “spiritual father of our new nation”, the “moral campus and national conscience” of South Africa.

Though famously known for his resistance against apartheid, Tutu also sought justice for other communities and persons oppressed in our society. Particularly, he spoke against violence in Palestine and championed human rights for Palestinians by publicly supporting the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Through BDS, he continuously urged the Episcopal Church to exert economic pressure on Israel by neglecting to pursue “financial investments and that make the Church complicit in the occupation.”  In partnering with Princess Mabel Van Orange of the Netherlands, he co-founded the Girls Not Brides organization. Tutu’s dedication towards ending child marriages is best exemplified by his extensive travel to villages in India, Ethiopia, and Zambia to understand the cause of those experiencing it. Additionally, the Arch founded the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation which offered treatment to and empowered those living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Tutu also advocated for LGBTQIA+ rights. Responding to violence against this community he said, “I oppose such injustice with the same passion that I opposed apartheid.” Lastly, the Arch was an avid climate activist, and his request for a simple coffin and that his remains be aquamated, an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, is a glimpse into his dedicated campaign for the climate.

We were truly blessed to have had the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his tribute, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the “Arch’s love transformed the lives of politicians and priests, township dwellers and world leaders. The world is different because of this man.” So, as we mourn his loss may we channel the words of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry. He said, “let us give thanks by honoring his legacy, not merely by lip service to racial justice and reconciliation, but with lives dedicated to this work. We do this by learning to live together as children and family of God, no longer hurting each other or God’s creation, but together living the dream God intended.”

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