Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Radical Leadership Structured through Love and Care

It had been an exhausting and uneventful day at work at Hands on Atlanta during Spring 2000. I drove back home on my motorcycle from midtown Atlanta to my parents’ home in Tucker, GA. I pulled into the garage, took off my helmet, took off my boots, and stepped into the kitchen. Hearing the kitchen door open and close, my parents summoned me to dinner with themselves, my sister Grace, and two guests. I walked into the dining room to be greeted by the enormous smiles and warmth of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mrs. Nomalizo Leah Tutu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in Atlanta completing a two-year visiting professorship at the Candler School of Theology where my father worked as an Associate Professor of World Christianity. What timing and what luck for me!

Through the course of dinner, each conversation grew into questions, affirmations, and acts of care and love. As a 25-year-old, I knew so little (even though I thought I knew a lot) but had high hopes for social justice. I did not have enough historical knowledge and did not have enough experience doing the work that transforms and creates worlds. Yet, Archbishop Tutu and Mrs. Tutu listened intently, asking more questions, adding humor, and affirming the difficulties of both social justice work and work in the non-profit-industrial complex.They wove in the care through all our conversations that night. They listened, they cared. They offered their thoughts, they cared. They shared their dreams, they cared. They offered a practice of care that I had never witnessed or experienced before.

Archbishop Tutu acknowledged the limitations of non-profit work and the disconnect with local communities. He emphasized the need to engage with the voices, stories, and histories of local communities in order to arrive at points of justice that could then be expansive. While I tried to sound smart and perform a certain comportment of justice, Archbishop Tutu gently affirmed my passion while pointing to the future that we need to secure. His work was a deliberate commitment to underscoring the past in service of making worlds. His work was a commitment to listening to all parties and practicing collaborations. He and Mrs. Tutu listened to everyone that night. Reflecting on this dinner from nearly 22 years ago, I see the magic now which I had not realized when it was taking place.

With all the accolades and global recognition, Archbishop Desmond Tutu did not spend a single moment discussing his work and he did not wear his status materially or symbolically. He wore not his status. He wore his love, generosity, and care. He embodied the generosity of a guest in a home breaking bread while practicing forms of community building and support that brought everyone into the fold of love and humanity. In our dining room that night, I had never met a more modest, generous, humble leader who exemplified the very best of the broadest visions of justice.

One can just look in the recent past to see how Archbishop Desmond Tutu envisioned social justice in South Africa. Even in the midst of the harshest conditions of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu did not seek revenge and did not envision perpetuating pain as a solution to centuries of racism in South Africa. Rather, with a compass of justice aligned to reconciliation, he sought communal healing through reconciliation. Through a commitment to forming, what Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned, the “beloved community” through forgiveness, everyone was invited to the table to discuss the present and future in South Africa. A forgiveness that was a commitment to building peaceful communities, a forgiveness and love that were forms of radical leadership.

During his two-year stint at my alma mater, Emory University, with its historical and contemporary links to slavery and racism, he was a beacon for justice on that campus. He modeled a world that we could create in places structured through racism while offering the language of community. His care, his collaborations, and his world-making were never in just one space and one time. It was never just local. Even during those few hours over dinner, Archbishop Tutu invited us all into a space of connectivity. This connectivity also meant engaging with local and global issues. Therefore, Archbishop Demond Tutu illustrated a vision creating community that called for freedom in Tibet, addressing anti-Blackness globally, supporting Palestinian sovereignty, demanding Western leaders be taken to court for the 2003 war in Iraq, and challenging forms of colonialism and oppression across the globe.

Even though he lived through the dehumanizing conditions of structural racism, Archbishop Tutu used his history as a guide to dismantle power instead of claiming power. He lived his politics and welcomed all to join in forming the beloved community. For example, during a World Council of Churches meeting, Archbishop Tutu was giving a speech when he saw my father in the crowd. He waved and acknowledged my father even though there were always bigger names in the audience. He reached out to connect. Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirmed our humanity, he acknowledged our stories.

Archbishop Tutu’s way of being in the world and his interconnectivity with so many people matched his words. His theology was practice. Those hours that one night in my parents’ home is a treasure and a compass for justice that I carry with me on all journeys. Archbishop Desmond Tutu exemplified a commitment to justice that did not have gatekeepers and was never just a symbolic gesture. His work was radical, visionary, ground-breaking, and holistic; yet, his social justice work centered humility and making spaces. Even in death, he was buried in a pine casket, the simplest of caskets for the most complex and devoted soul.

Thank you, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for impacting my life and showing me an incredible model of socially engaged, principled, and ethical living. You have given us a map and a template of how to live responsibly with love in the world. It is because of your leadership that I cannot imagine justice without gender, racial, sexual, class, religious, and ethnic justice. Thank you. I am lucky to have your stories, experiences, and words to share with my family. I read one of your children’s books to my two kids who embrace religious difference through your words. You will be missed greatly. Thank you and Mrs. Tutu for sharing your world-making project with us and for inviting all of us to be involved in creating a better future. May you celebrate with the ancestors as we celebrate, grieve, and mourn for you in the present. The poetry of your life will continue to shape the verses of our present and future.

Stanley Thangaraj is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at the City College of New York (CUNY). His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making. His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures. His newest research is on Kurdish America, statelessness, and identity formations during a time of the “global war on terror,” increased nation-state violence against Kurds, increased xenophobia, and anti-Muslim racism.