The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, the iconic spiritual leader and South African anti-apartheid activist cherished the world over, graced Indianapolis on Thursday night with a spirited address to about 2,100 onlookers gathered at Clowes Hall. His remarks arrived on the heels of an announcement made by the presidents of both Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary—James M. Danko and Matthew Myer Boulton, respectively—that they have created the Desmond Tutu Center, a collaborative academic center and the first of its kind in North America to be named after the archbishop. Danko called the center “a living library for students.” When Tutu himself took to the microphone, he said, “I am actually completely bowled over. … One of the benefits of a complexion like mine is that nobody notices when you are blushing.”
Allan Aubrey Boesak, Tutu’s longtime friend and comrade in the struggle for apartheid’s end in South Africa will serve as the founding chair for peace, global justice, and reconciliation studies at the Desmond Tutu Center. He introduced the archbishop first with these words: “There once was a boy. He was born in 1931. The boy was bright; he had a stubborn streak.” That boy became a young man, a high school teacher and then a seminary student. (He is now retired from the Anglican Church.)
Boesak noted that his friendship with Tutu extends over more than 50 years, and that now, “our friendship will be solidified in something more than days of the past.” Boesak said of Tutu, “His greatest gift is that he could see first what others could not see.” Amos Brown of Radio One then introduced the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, noting that one of the archbishop’s favorite things is children singing, before the newly announced Archbishop Emeritus Tutu rather unceremoniously appeared onstage and acknowledged the choir’s children at length before stepping up—sporting a right-leg boot cast, no less—to the podium that he soon transformed into a pulpit.
Tutu captivated his congregation of sorts, for 42 minutes regaling attendees with tales of anti-apartheid action and thoughts on American life, religion, world leaders. He spoke slowly and deliberately, sometimes injecting his words with giddy chuckles and un-self-conscious yelps of laughter that made him appear nearly childlike.
Perhaps most compelling and even revelatory were his words about inclusion—by God and by fellow humans—of all people, regardless of race, socio-economic status, religion, and even sexual orientation. He generated raucous laughter early on with a winking nod to his anti-apartheid activism, addressing Indianapolis City-County Council president Maggie Lewis: “Thank you for the police escort. It’s so wonderful not to have the police chasing you.” Later, he gave his pointed opinion about the devastated state of Syrian citizens today, admonishing American and global leaders to “drop food, not bombs” on that ravaged nation.
Here are more excerpts from his statements:
- About the matter of inclusion: “Remember, when Jesus predicted his coming again in the fourth Gospel, he says, If I am lifted up, I will draw—he didn’t say some—he said, I will draw all, all, all, all in this incredible, divine embrace, where no one is left out. Clever, foolish, rich, poor, white, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist—I will draw all, all, all. Assad, Obama—all, all, all, all. So-called straight—all. Gay, lesbian, transgendered. When I am lifted up, I will draw all, all, all in the incredible embrace, where no one is left out.”
- On the subject of helping those less fortunate: “The God we worship is not evenhanded. He is notoriously biased—in favor of the downtrodden, in favor of the poor, in favor of the outcast.”
- As to the matters of Iraq and Syria: “I salute the American people because they learned a lesson in 2003, and the majority don’t want military intervention [in Syria now].”
- On George W. Bush and Americans on the whole: “You Americans are some of the most generous people God ever created. … George Bush, Jr., will probably be remembered for two things: the invasion of Iraq—illegal, immoral—and this incredible thing he did. He created PEPFAR.” (PEPFAR seeks to end the scourges of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS in Africa.)
- About the naming of Boesak as founding chair of the Desmond Tutu Center: “[He's] a remarkable, gifted, indeed charismatic compatriot, with a scintillating record in the history of liberation.”
- Poking fun at his 81-years-young status: “As you can see, I am decrepit. … I’m at the age where … you tell the same story, and sometimes you tell it to the person who first told you.”
- About Nelson Mandela: “He became free in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I don’t know, coincidence?” [laughs]
- Speaking to the Book of Exodus story: “God did not say, ‘I will free them when they are deliverable.’”
- On the subject of the Bible: “In a situation of injustice and oppression, the last thing you ought to give to the oppressed is a Bible. It is one of the most revolutionary things you ever can have.”
- About God: “We’ve missed the boat if we think the Good Shepherd doesn’t leave the good, well-behaved, fluffy sheep and goes after the one whose face is torn, who smells to high heaven. … He takes it home and says let’s celebrate.”
The occasion did not mark Tutu’s first appearance in Indianapolis. That came in May 2002, when he delivered the commencement address at Butler and was awarded a degree and a title, Doctor of Humane Letters. He noted in his address to this throng that he is an alumnus of the university.
The Thursday-night event was sponsored by the Dungy Family Foundation, also a founding partner of the new center. Brown, the Radio One personality, served as emcee for the event, greeting the expectant crowd and moderating a brief roundtable discussion—overwhelmingly featuring more of the archbishop’s sage statements—after all the leaders had spoken formally.
Photos courtesy Butler University