Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis

“Desmond Tutu has been a part of my life for 20 years now—as a mentor and a role model; as a member of our nonprofit’s board; as the priest who married me and my husband; as the man who always challenges me to give the very best that I have to give,” said filmmaker Dawn Gifford Engle in 2014 at the premiere of her film “Children of the Light” that opened the 9th annual Harlem Film Festival. “It has been an incredible honor to be able to capture his spirit, essence, and cutting-edge work in the world in our new film and…I hope that millions of people around the world will now be able to get to know this great man, as a result.”

Her film, narrated by Tutu’s daughter, Naomi, that chronicles the archbishop’s passionate resolve for peace and a relentless fight against Apartheid, is now echoed by thousands as they mourn his passing. The cleric, Nobel Peace Prize recipient with an unwavering demand for justice and unimpeachable integrity, joined the ancestors on Dec. 26 in Cape Town, South Africa. He was 90.

“We have lost a person who carried the burden of leadership with compassion, with dignity, with humility and with such good humor,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

That sentiment was similarly expressed by former President Barack Obama, who tweeted that Tutu “was a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and so many others. A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.”

Ever since his emergence on the international stage Tutu was a beacon of serenity who possessed an impish sense of steadfastness, one who refused to cower before the forces of evil and oppression. Those characteristics began on Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a township just west of Johannesburg. He began as a teacher before entering the priesthood at St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville in 1958. In 1961, he was ordained and six years later became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, where a number of noted freedom fighters attended.

After brief tenures in Lesotho and Britain, he returned to South Africa in 1975 where he subsequently became bishop of Lesotho and chair of the South African Council of Churches. More prestigious stops occurred when he became the first Black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and then a year later in 1986, the first Black archbishop of Cape Town. In this capacity he relished the ordination of women priest and promoted gay priests.

His activism gained public notice when he was arrested in 1980 for taking part in a protest and had his passport confiscated. When he recovered the document he resumed his travels, including a meeting with the U.N. secretary general and other prominent church leaders. It was on such occasions as this that he began the call for international sanctions against South African as well as talks to end the conflict.

His many accomplishments are now resounding around the globe and we are glad that many Harlemites had a chance to see how forthright and resolute he was, at least in a cinematic way, from “Children of the Light.” “Arch” Tutu, as he
referred to himself, was wedded to peace and unity, a wish for togetherness that he insisted was the only answer to the world’s problems.

In her concluding reflections on her mentor seven years ago, Ms. Engle mused, “How has he been able to achieve so much in one lifetime? The words that come to mind are tenacity, courage, faith, patience and community. He stays on the path of nonviolence, and he just keeps on walking his own talk.”

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