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Interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

A Man For All Causes

Two of the world’s most famous spiritual leaders have visited Hawaii this year, and people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds have embraced their messages of peace, love and compassion. The Dalai Lama helped launch the Pillars of Peace series in mid-April and inspired a Lamapalooza-like following here.

Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has returned to Honolulu to give a popular series of talks at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, where his words will still reverberate long after he’s gone.

Though they come from very different worlds, the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu share a kindred spirit of kindness that transcends their national borders and religious beliefs. They have faced incredible violence at the hands of powerful enemies, yet both men have won the Nobel Peace Prize for embracing non-violent resistance, peace and forgiveness. As if to spite pain and hardship, both spiritual leaders share the same playful sense of humor and light-hearted laughter that seems to come from a profound appreciation for life’s simple joys.

Along with being the first black Archbishop of South Africa, Tutu oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped heal the deep wounds and crimes of apartheid. Though temped to retire years ago, the Anglican bishop went on to become Chair of the Elders, a group of international leaders who are committed to helping resolve conflicts around the world.

As supporters of the Elders and personal friends of the Archbishop, Pierre and Pam Omidyar1 had wanted to bring “Arch” (as Pam likes to call him) to Hawaii for years. So when Father Walter Brownridge invited him to visit and give a series of talks at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, everything fell into place. Before becoming the first African-American Dean at the Cathedral, Brownridge had worked with Tutu in South Africa and their families had become friends.

Before his arrival, I emailed a series of questions to Bishop Tutu about his visit to the Islands and the many causes he supports around the world. Despite being jetlagged and busy, the Archbishop took the time and effort to answer the questions with his wit and wisdom.


Can you tell me about your visit to Hawaii and your friendship with Father Walter Brownridge?

My wife and I returned first to have a holiday and then I have the privilege of giving a Memorial Lecture and to preach in the Cathedral … Father and Mrs. Brownridge were attached to the Cathedral in Cape Town. I was already retired, thus I saw him really only whenever I went to the Cathedral. As a racially mixed couple, they epitomized what we wanted our country to be, the rainbow nation. They honoured me by naming their younger son Martin (after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Desmond (after you know who).

Looking back on Nelson Mandela’s incredible life and your common struggle against apartheid, what would you say is the greatest lesson you learned about that painful time?

First, I do not know what kind of person I might have turned out to be had I been subjected to the same conditions as the racists. So I have learned to say thankfully, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And then, I have been amazed by the resilience of those who have suffered grievously, their capacity to come up for more, and then when you expected them to be consumed by hatred and a lust for revenge, to be bowled over by their magnanimity and generosity of spirit in their willingness to forgive the perpetrators of even the most gruesome of atrocities. I have learned that this is indeed a moral universe and that ultimately good and right will prevail over their ghastly counterparts.

Can you talk about the Elders and what kind of causes you are supporting around the world?

The Elders are the result of an initiative by Sir Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel, who said we now inhabit a global village. In the traditional village, the elders are looked upon as repositories of experience and wisdom and are looked up to provide wise counsel and encouragement. The Elders were invited by Nelson Mandela and no longer seek public office and really no longer have a constituency they must please; and so it is felt they can speak out without fear or favour. Obviously, we want peace and good governance, to promote human rights, to amplify the voices of those who tend to be ignored. We speak out where others might be circumspect. We want to promote societies that are hospitable to young people, to women, seeking to promote justice and peace. We have been doing our bit to promote peace between the two Sudans, to facilitate the reunification of Cyprus, peace for Israel and the Palestinians, an end to the crisis in Zimbabwe, reconciliation between North and South Korea, accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and challenging the distorted role of religion and tradition to subjugate women.

You have been a leader in the fight against racism, homophobia and gender discrimination around the world. Do you believe America has made progress on these civil rights issues?

They are very important ones, but we still discriminate unfairly against women and racism is not dead. Just look at the harassment your President has had to endure really just because he is black, having to prove he really was American (after being a Senator!). You still have racial profiling, etc. Though we must commend you. Despite all the racism rife in the US, you have elected a black President. You must get considerable Brownie points for that!

Just as Father DuTiel started the Institute for Human Services (I.H.S.) at St. Andrew’s Cathedral to feed the homeless, what can people do about the rise of homeless populations in our cities?

I think it is a good exercise to ask oneself, “How would I have wanted to be treated?” Most poor people I know are proud and really want not a handout but a hand up. They do have an inherent pride and dignity, and we should treat them as those who have fallen on bad days. Those of us who are Christians have to remember what our Lord said: “When I was hungry … in as much as you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me. …”

With the devastating effects of fossil fuels, global warming and corporate globalization, how do you change a society that seems to worship consumerism, power and profits over the health and welfare of its people and the planet?

There was a time when you were thought to be eccentric, needing to have your marbles checked, when you might raise issues of the environment. Now, nearly everyone is aware and would not blatantly be irresponsible. So don’t be too impatient. We are not there yet, but we are getting to realize that actually we have only one earth home. If we destroy it, we are done for. We are realizing a little more urgently that we must, as Martin Luther King Jr said, “learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or we will perish together as fools.”

As the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, what advice would you give to fellow Nobel Laureate Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president?

It does so happen that blacks in racist societies tend to be judged as representatives not of the human race but a particular segment of it. When a black person succeeds in whatever endeavor, then racists say, “Ah, she/he is exceptional.” And when he/she fails, then the retort is “Ah, what did you expect?” I hope we can grow up. In the meantime, I would say to him, “Do what you do best and sleep soundly.”

You and the Dalai Lama are both known for your wisdom, warmth and laughter. But in the face of so much violence and injustice in the world, how do you maintain your inner peace and sense of humor?

His Holiness spends about 5 hours every morning in prayer and meditation. His serenity in the face of Chinese harassment is amazing but not surprising. He is the holiest person I have ever encountered and I am in awe of him. I try to pray a bit and depend so very much on the countless numbers who pray for us. I would disintegrate without all those prayers. Life is funny and we are really funny, especially when we get to be hoity toity; we can be so ridiculous. Life is fun.

As a wise Elder, what is your parting message for the young people of Hawaii and the U.S.?

Please go on being idealistic. Dream, dream of a world where poverty is history, dream of a world where we don’t spend those obscene billions on arms, knowing full well that a tiny fraction of those budgets of death would ensure that children everywhere had clean water to drink, could afford the cheap inoculations against preventable diseases, would have good schools, adequate healthcare and decent homes. Dream of a world where children can laugh and play and not be blown up by a mine they thought was a toy; dream God’s dream that we will wake up and realize that we are sisters and brothers, members of one family, God’s family, the human family. Dream, be idealistic and don’t be infected by the cynicism of us oldies. This world, the only one we have can, yes, as you believe, be better; no, it can be great as the home for all.

About the author: Stuart H. Coleman is the Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation and the author of Eddie Would Go and Fierce Heart (St. Martin’s Press).

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