Desmond Tutu is a master at expressing complex truths simply.
Many of us remember the hardships he endured — from incarceration to hateful rumours to death threats — as a spiritual leader in the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa. Yet, he never lost his capacity to respond with compassion, humour and exuberant faith. He speaks in ways that might sound naive or simplistic coming from someone else. And yet, his words carry power.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Anglican Church of South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and has enjoyed cascading international honours ever since for his passionate work on human rights, from fighting homophobia (well ahead of most of his contemporaries) to decrying the suffering caused by climate change.
I’ve witnessed his infectious joy on several occasions, including a time in the mid-1990s when he was launching his book The Rainbow People of God. Talking about South Africa’s struggles with apartheid, he invited Canadian audiences to notice the ways in which they were tempted to separate themselves from others. He then countered the separation by asking everyone to hold hands, raise them in the air and sway together, repeating: “We are the rainbow people of God!” A strong bond was immediately created within the diverse crowds of shy strangers.
He brought that same exuberance to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen when he, along with an international body of church leaders, called upon politicians to live up to the world’s best hopes.
What did he say? That God weeps over what we’ve done to the Earth and to one another, and that God’s tears can be wiped away by the commitments of millions of people. He united souls in a common goal and reminded us that we are all one family. Afterward, young people lined up to get Tutu’s autograph like he was a rock star.
Later on, I overheard European bishops asking one another with bemused admiration, “How does he get away with it?” Being sophisticated theologians, they would never speak of God in such simple terms. Yet Tutu moves millions of hearts and minds with his accessible imagery. He expresses God in terms of shared human experience, joining us to one another and to holy mystery. He does not (as the bishops may have feared) diminish God; rather, he elevates us.
His spouse, Leah Tutu, also knows the power of story. In a video broadcast in 1989, Leah describes her most memorable Christmas pageant, in which a young woman played a “feisty Mary.” No “gentle Mary meek and mild” for her. Leah vividly described how the teenager held her head high in her role as a young, pregnant and unmarried woman. She was confident. She carried a piece of God’s heart within her. How different the world would be if each of us carried this truth with confidence.
“Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us” is a line from God’s Dream, a book that Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams wrote for children. As I read it to younger ones, I also emphasize the line that follows, “And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole.”
In a few simple words, illustrated with the faces of children representing every place and faith, the power of the Christmas story is revealed: it’s a simple narrative that carries within it the complexity of love and connection.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.