By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
In his 1979 book, “With Head and Heart,” Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, a renowned African American mystic and son of enslaved parentage, recalls his graduate studies: “[A]s I began to acquiesce to the demands of the spirit within, I found no need to differentiate human need, theirs and my own …. I discovered that at last I was able to pray in public as if I were alone in the quiet of my own room.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu embodied these words.
I witnessed this up close as a mentee and friend of Archbishop Tutu. I had the honor of meeting him and Mrs. Tutu as a young adult during a joyous lunch with them at an Assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) in Lomé, Togo.
At that time, I was serving as the national organizer of the official national African American church leaders delegation to the Assembly. Then Bishop Tutu was elected as president of the AACC during a critical period of transition. He centered his acceptance in prayer and called the AACC to renew its prayer life inwardly and publicly in its prophetic witness.
One of my vivid memories of this was when I visited with him at his church home in Cape Town, South Africa—the St. George’s Cathedral, which was a sacred and central public location with and for the people during the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Archbishop Tutu, the first indigenous Black African leader of the Cathedral’s bishopric of Cape Town and earlier, Bishop of Johannesburg, de-colonized the prohibitions of restricted access, liturgy, and engagement. Reflective of his leadership, he made this sanctuary a public place of prayer, advocacy, and “human need for all.”
Following a beautiful public vesper service at the Cathedral, I engaged in a meaningful conversation with Archbishop Tutu and other church leaders.
Afterward, Archbishop Tutu kindly offered to drop me off at my hotel. While we were walking to the vehicle, he urged me to move quickly. He was aware of a nearby danger. While not alarmed, Archbishop Tutu immediately invited me, the chaplain, and the driver into private prayer while the driver immediately found an alternative route to drop me safely at my hotel.
Archbishop Tutu, and so many others, always lived with the possibility of harm and death. While Archbishop Tutu lived with such peril, he still led with head, heart, humility, and hope, at times even displaying these virtues in his infectious laughter.
President Cyril Ramaphosa captured this faithfulness at his state funeral when he said that Archbishop Tutu was the “spiritual father of the new South Africa.”
Today, this kind of leadership is needed in our ministry to end hunger and poverty. In this age of the COVID-19 pandemic—with fierce disagreements and violent assaults—advocacy leadership with head, heart, humility, and hope is needed.
May we, like Archbishop Tutu, renew our prayerful commitment to see our way to find “no need to differentiate human need, theirs and our own.”
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church engagement at Bread for the World.