How Young Desmond Tutu became Bishop Tutu

A friend of mine, also an Episcopal priest, Father Peter Carey of New York City, forwarded me this story about the origin of Bishop Tutu’s priestly vocation that deserves telling, I believe.

Statue of Anglican Archbishop of the Indian Ocean, Trevor Huddleston, in Silver Street, Bedford. While in high school, Desmond Tutu served under Huddleston at Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown. Photo by Simon Speed, on Wikimedia Commons.

When Desmond Tutu was a child he would go after school to the kitchen of a small hospital where his mother worked as a cook. He would remain there, helping his mother and doing his homework until they both went home at the end of the day.

Several times a week, a young white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston would leave his bicycle behind the hospital and would then walk through the kitchen on his way to visit the sick, and when he did he always raised his hat to Desmond’s mother and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Tutu.”

This simple act of courtesy and respect toward his mother so impressed the little boy half hidden behind his mother that it profoundly influenced his entire future as well as the future of his native land.

He knew he lived in a world where virtually all white people didn’t even bother to speak to blacks, much less show them respect. He lived in a world where a black person had to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white person who might be walking toward them.

Years later, Tutu wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered what kind of man this was and what kind of church he represented. And when I found out, I decided that I wanted to be a priest like him.”

A glance at the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, through the struggles of Apartheid, the subsequent freedom, and his appointment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Video by DesmondTutu PeaceFoundation

When Huddleston lifted his hat and greeted Mrs. Tutu, he did so to Christ himself. (Matt 25:40) Desmond Tutu saw and understood that. And so the seed was planted that led him ultimately to the Nobel Prize for Peace and to an encomium as “exuberant apostle of racial justice.”

And not just racial justice, but as an advocate and outspoken champion of all marginalized and persecuted groups, including gay people and lesbians on a continent where speaking out for gay people is highly unpopular.

See Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion. 

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Promise for the coming generations: Malala Yousoufzai, UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and Desmond Tutu attend the one-year anniversary of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) co-organized by the Global Education First Initiative’s Secretariat and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), New York, 25 September 2013. Photo by United Nations Information Centres on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

What in this story of Desmond Tutu’s experience as a child speaks to issues of racism and justice in our time? 

Recommended Reading:

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice

In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity.
“Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register

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7 thoughts on “How Young Desmond Tutu became Bishop Tutu”

  1. Avatar

    Coming full circle – Reflecting on Trevor Huddleston greeting Mrs. Tutu, I am reminded of when Desmond Tutu preached at the Cathedral I attended which was followed by a luncheon in his honor. He came over to the three of us who were serving and thanked and chatted with us. He saw, acknowledged, and spoke appreciatively to us. A lifetime after Trevor did likewise to his mother.

    1. Avatar

      What a lovely memory of Archbishop Tutu that brings the story about Trevor Huddleston and Tutu’s mother full circle–a virtuous circle. Would that we all created more such circles.

  2. Avatar

    Desmond Tutu was and still remains a seed planter. He plants the seeds of reconciling love, in the hearts of the wounded, whom become healers, those whom become the truth tellers. The victory unfolds within the community of wounded healers, and truth tellers, because these ones have learnt to hold fast to the deep truth, power and justice of Divine Love, that does indeed reconcile all to trust in the wisdom of God’s ways.

    Sceptics and cynics watch these wounded healers, these truth tellers with awe and wonder, as they give voice to the truth of their personal stories of the many injustices and cruelties inflicted upon them…. and as they speak something begins to arise from the depths of the souls of the perpetrators, whom too are wounded. This something is the words, I’m Sorry. These words are the key that opens the door of the heart to restorative healing and justice… the possibility of resurrecting that inherent goodness, compassion, mercy and love in the midst of humanities weaknesses, and woundedness.

    No one comes into this world fully formed. We need one another to become the gifts that we are, both in our weaknesses and strengths, in our woundedness and healing. We are made complimentary, making up for what is lacking in one another. When we dehumanize another, we dehumanize ourself. We must come together to help one another recover our humanity and restore our divinity. God is incapable of giving up on anyone, for each one is a masterpiece in the making. God loves all unconditionally.

    There is no future without forgiveness, and there is no healing, no peace without God’s reconciling love. The pathway of the wounded healer includes confronting conflict, with truth telling. Through God’s reconciling love the wounded are healed. Through this process, we remember, deep down within our very being, that we are all made for goodness, that we are all made for compassion, caring, and mercy… that we all hunger to transcend our shared woundedness through the reconciliation of God’s Divine Love.

    (This comment has been paraphrased from one of Desmond Tutu’s lectures.)

  3. Avatar

    Fr Huddleston was one of my heroes – so like Jesus in what he said and what he did. No wonder the Arch was captivated !

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