Remembering a Treasured Visit with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
After a hurried trip to South Africa to meet one of the world’s most famous clerics, an author's appointment was canceled. Then came the greatest of surprises.
Cynthia Primo Martin was honored to attend what turned out to be the final service Tutu would officiate at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
In 2000, the Primo Lecture Series advisory board and DuPont partnered to bring Desmond Tutu to Wilmington for DuPont’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and the inaugural event of the lecture series in memory of my dad, the Rt. Rev. Quintin E. Primo Jr. I vividly recall the last question Archbishop Tutu answered at the end of the more than two-hour session.
There in the former DuPont Theatre, after an electrifying presentation including excerpts of testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings and questions from many of the 1,000 people in attendance, the moderator asked, “And what’s next for you, Bishop Tutu?”
We sat motionless, waiting for an eloquent and prophetic statement. Then archbishop uttered, “Supper.”
Every member of the audience erupted into laughter, clapped loudly and rose to her feet.
That was Desmond Tutu: stunning, sparkling, wise, godly, small in stature but larger than life.
It was a wonderful evening, and I have never forgotten the impact his words and presence had on everyone who attended the program. Nor have I forgotten his visit with my family.
My husband, Josh, and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing him again in Wilmington later that year. The PNC Bank Commonwealth Awards Trust Committee (of which Josh was a member and bank director) chose Tutu as one of its annual honorees. At the event, I promised Tutu that when we visited South Africa, we would see him in his own “habitat.” Sixteen years later, I was finally about to make good on my promise.
We were aware, however, that Tutu had experienced a recurrence of a very serious illness, causing us to wonder if we would be able to see him at all.
I reached out to his daughter Naomi, who lived in Washington, D.C. She had attended the Primo Lecture with her mother, Leah, in 2000. Naomi connected me with Tutu’s scheduler in Cape Town, South Africa. After several emails, including ones to Mpho, another daughter, I was given an appointment for tea with him on Oct. 27, which meant I had to move my flight up a day to arrive a day earlier in Cape Town. Because of his health, the archbishop had reduced the amount of time he was in his office. Josh had a previously scheduled business meeting in the Midwest, so he was unable to leave a day earlier, much to his chagrin.
A few days before I was due to depart, the archbishop’s office emailed me to say he was not well enough to do tea with me. I could, however, see him the next morning at the 7:15 communion service at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. He had officiated the service every Friday for the past 25 years, dating back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.
I was disappointed about missing tea—I hoped I had not traveled so far, only to lose another chance to see Tutu once again in this life—but I was excited to see him the next morning. I set my alarm clock and, as a backup, requested a wake-up call from the hotel. The Cape Grace Hotel, a classic five-star hotel on the beautiful Cape Town harbor, promised to have a car waiting at 6:45 the next morning. All went as scheduled, and I arrived at St. George’s on time.
About 40 people were already there—weekly congregants, as well as visitors to Cape Town. We waited. At well past 7:15 a.m., a young Anglican priest walked in and greeted everyone. When he returned to the sacristy to prepare for the service, it seemed I would not see Archbishop Tutu at all.
Then, lo and behold, the young priest walked back in with 85-year-old Archbishop Tutu on his arm.
What should have been a 50-minute service turned into two hours. Archbishop Tutu officiated as much of the service as he could, but at one point he announced that this would be the last. Tears flowed down cheeks of those gathered.
Archbishop Tutu asked us each to identify ourselves and explain why we attended St. George’s that day. Stories abounded. The former mayor of Cape Town spoke of his long friendship with the archbishop. One woman related her weekly attendance for 25 years and the impact the Truth and Reconciliation hearings had on white South Africans. Others were first-timers who simply offered blessings for being able to attend his last service.
I brought greetings from Delaware and my family, and I thanked Tutu for coming to Delaware to inaugurate the Primo Lecture Series. In response, he was still as gracious as ever.
The archbishop spoke for at least 20 minutes, recalling his long ministry, the impact and dismantling of apartheid, and his disappointment in the current government leadership. Afterward, we exchanged the peace of the Lord with him and took communion.
At the end of the service, we were each allowed to take a photo with the archbishop. As I milled around a bit, I learned that a stately woman who had sat in the back of the church was another Tutu daughter, Thandi. When I introduced myself, she invited me to breakfast down the street—a weekly tradition—with the archbishop. Delighted to have been asked, I walked with her. The archbishop was to arrive later. He had wanted to walk, but his handlers preferred he be driven.
As Thandi and I talked, I met some of her father’s faithful parishioners and a few more friends and family members. Many had left before he arrived, thinking he might be too frail to come. Someone suggested I walk back to the cathedral store to buy one of his children’s books for my granddaughter, Carter. I bought three books. Thandi promised he would sign them.
Soon after I returned for breakfast, Tutu finally arrived—and when he was seated at the table, I was lucky enough to sit across from him.
I had so many questions to ask him. I wanted him to reflect on the postapartheid/Truth and Reconciliation Commission era in South Africa. Where are we now? What mistakes are being made by the current government and how can or will it play out? What is it like not to have Nelson Mandela’s friendship and leadership now? Are there any rising young leaders to carry on what he and Mandela had accomplished?
I wanted to ask his thoughts on systemic racism in the United States and what steps we should take to eradicate it. I especially wanted to hear more about his support for death with dignity and assisted death. What made him change his position? Was it because he was now looking death in the face? How did he reconcile his position with religious belief in the sanctity of life, no matter the circumstances?
But I didn’t want to overwhelm him. Because our election was just a few days away, however, I did ask what he thought of Donald Trump. He pondered a moment, shook his head and said, “Unbelievable.”
Tutu did not remain long at breakfast. He was clearly very tired. When he left with his small entourage, I said goodbye, knowing I probably would never see him again, but grateful that I was given the opportunity to spend this Friday morning in his presence.
I have several photos of him and me taken with my iPhone, one in which he is signing the books for Carter, another enjoying his smoothie.
These will always be precious memories. As our trip continued, South Africans hardly believed me when I said I had actually been in the presence of Desmond Tutu. When I showed them my photos, they were shocked. “He is one of the greatest people who ever lived,” they commented. “We owe so much to him. He is a saint.”
In many ways, the archbishop reminds me of my dad, Bishop Primo, whom I lost on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1998. They were both small men with big hearts and big ways who fought always for social justice and human dignity, no matter the cost.
But, of course, Archbishop Tutu inspired people around the globe. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world.
As I reflect upon being with him in Wilmington on that Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2000, I am reminded of how far we have come, but I am saddened by how much more we have to do and how the importance of treating others with respect and dignity appears at times to be waning.
There is “no future without forgiveness,” Archbishop Tutu once said. I understand intellectually, but in my heart, I know how hard it is to forgive and move on when racism continues to exist.
But I am empowered by the words in his book. “The world probably came to a standstill on May 10 (1994) when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president,” he wrote. “If it did not stand still then, it ought to have, because nearly all the world’s heads of state and other leaders were milling around in Pretoria … Tears were streaming my face. Almost as if from one throat, an ear-piercing roar broke forth from the South Africans who were there and, I think, especially the black South Africans. It was as it if it occurred to all of us simultaneously that … this was indeed now our country in the profoundest possible way.”
The joy that Archbishop Tutu experienced at that moment has carried him through his life of inspiration and dedication to help others in their fight for peace and recognition. He has been tireless—a living example to all of us of life’s possibilities despite oppression, degradation, sacrifice and the pain of racism and other “isms.”
I am proud and humbled to have had a chance to be touched by him in my life.