Opinion: Why Desmond Tutu is everybody's archbishop!

Robert Taylor with Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama

Story highlights

  • Taylor: Tutu still working for a world where all are included
  • Taylor: Tutu believes in the value and sacredness of each human story
  • Tutu believes "we need one another in order to be fully human"
When I arrived in Cape Town for Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday festivities this week a customs official asked why I was visiting the country. When I explained she said "Ah! Desmond Tutu -- he is everybody's archbishop!" She reflected the gratitude of a world that celebrates his leadership in calling out of the best of our humanity by claiming him as part of her life.
At 80 Desmond Tutu is as spunky as ever in imagining and working for a world where all are included. Tutu's insistence on our need for one another in order to be fully human is the signature idea behind his global leadership on reconciliation, ending conflicts and hope. As the world celebrates his iconic leadership it illuminates the void in authentic ethical leadership in the global community.
In my first personal meeting with Tutu in 1980 I was thrown off guard by his question, "Tell me about your life Robert - not what you've done but who you are." The question reflects his belief in the value and sacredness of each human story and that our lives are all bundled together. I was not prepared for his reaction to my story.
I was 22 and Tutu was 49 and I wondered what our lives could have in common. Telling him of my lengthy hospitalizations as a teenager I said that I'd had an unexpected visitor in Trevor Huddleston whose book "Naught For Your Comfort" opened my eyes to the brutal realities of apartheid. Huddleston's expansive generosity about the humanity of all stood in sharp contrast to the way in which the community he served in Sophiatown was bulldozed by the apartheid government because its multi-ethnic character did not fit the paradigm of apartheid to separate people at any cost.
As I paused in the telling of my story Desmond Tutu's laughter filled the room. Incredulous, I just looked at him, waiting for him to settle down. Finally Tutu said, "When I was a young boy, I had tuberculosis. I spent months in the hospital, just like you, lonely and afraid. Trevor Huddleston was my priest! He visited me almost every day, reading stories and talking to me. Huddleston inspired me to think about being a priest."
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Shared transformation, decades apart. On the common ground of our connecting story, Tutu then asked, "Tell me your thinking about serving in the military." I shared with him my willingness to go to prison indefinitely as a consequence for refusing to serve in the South African military that enforced apartheid.
Tutu thoughtfully said, "There will be a time when this kind of action will be important. It isn't now." I hadn't expected this reaction to a decision I had wrestled with for years. I had thirty days before showing up to report for military duty or else refuse to serve and be jailed. Within ten days Tutu had me out of the country and in New York City.
Desmond Tutu had no reason to act as he did other than his profound sense of our shared humanity in working for a world in which justice and the wellbeing of all is an expression of his ethical leadership of compassion.
Fifteen years later I asked Desmond Tutu when he would add LGBT people into his compelling vision that we are all "made for oneness." He assured me that it would be after the fall of apartheid. This iconic leader has been true to his word. To the ire of many and the delight of others, Tutu is insistent that there are no outsiders with God or the human family.
Gender equity for women and the need to protect the environment stand alongside Tutu's voice negotiating the ending of conflicts around the globe. His vision that we are all part of one family is a global vision. In a world of increasing xenophobia and a preponderance of leaders who serve the altar of exclusionary self-interest Tutu stands out because of his view that we need one another in order to be fully human.
That customs official was right -- Tutu is "everybody's archbishop" for a reason.