Sunday, December 26, 2021

Driving Desmond Tutu

All the lovely tributes about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died today at the age of 90, are missing one key point: Desmond Tutu glowed.

A joyful activist for equality and justice, Archbishop Tutu radiated; he filled the space around him with an expansive, inclusive, golden aura of light and love and peace and kindness.

I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

I was captured by the glow when Archbishop Tutu and his gracious wife Leah visited Kansas City in 1996. As one of their hosts during a visit to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I had the privilege of driving them around town. They eschewed a limo or police escort; after years of leading protests against apartheid in South Africa, the Archbishop reportedly preferred to avoid police cars.

I was embarrassed to open the doors to my small, old car. I shouldn't have worried. They were clearly delighted to get in the backseat together and relax a bit, out of the spotlight.

As l drove this loving couple to the airport, we chatted like old friends. I asked him about the risks he faced daily, the dangers he put himself in as he fought for change. I don’t remember his response (I believe it was essentially a shrug and a, “One does what one can,” kind of answer), but I do remember Leah, resplendent in colorful South African garb, looking directly in my rearview mirror and rolling her eyes. 

I could have asked dozens of questions as I drove, but Archbishop Tutu had other ideas. He wanted to ask the questions; he wanted to use our limited time together to learn about me and my life.

“You are a young woman with a career and a family,” he said. “How do you manage? How do you balance all the demands?”

He asked. He listened. This gentle, strong, world-changing leader wanted to know about me.

I was honored by his interest; he was grateful for my time. Several days after their visit to Kansas City, I received a handwritten postcard from the Archbishop, thanking me for all I had done to “look after” him and his wife and letting me know they enjoyed themselves “hugely.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was all of the things the tributes note — he was ebullient and inspirational. He was heroic, powerful, and courageous. He was a sage and a leader. 

He was a man. A son, a husband, a father, a friend. And he glowed. 

In the words of my religious tradition, may his memory be a blessing. May his light always shine.


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