The term “living legend” is tossed around so much that it really doesn’t have much sway.
But when I had the privilege of hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, last week, I knew I was in the presence of … a living legend. Dressed in a dark suit, white cleric’s collar and purple sweater, with a large shining silver cross around his neck, Tutu radiated goodness and good humor from the moment he came onstage.
And yet, as he answered questions posed by a moderator, he didn’t issue legendary proclamations. Rather, he is a master of the simple yet inspiring comment.
He began by playing with the audience. The moderator asked a complex question about faith: Is it fluid or solid?
Before answering, Tutu made a few personal remarks.
Then he said, “What was your question?”
Was he owning up to the frailties of age? He is, after all, 83. Or was he simply having a little fun at the expense of the moderator?
As Tutu spoke, it was evident that he is as sharp as ever. And that his faith is rock solid.
“I grew up in a society that told black people they didn’t count for very much,” he said. But he took inspiration from his mother: “She was stumpy and had a large nose but she was amazing in her generosity, her compassion, her caringness,” he said. He noted with mock dismay that there is a family resemblance, but her legacy was clearly about inner appearances. “I hope I might be able to emulate her,” he said humbly.
One memory of his mother is especially important to him. He recalls the day when, as a young boy, he saw a white priest doff his hat to his mother: “It made me believe what we kept being told: that we were all equal.”
One of Tutu’s four children, the Reverend Mpho A. Tutu, joined him onstage. Warm and wise, she is definitely her father’s daughter.
Resplendent in a brightly patterned turban and tunic, orange slacks and strappy high heels, she explained, “I didn’t want young people in the congregation to think if you want to be a priest you have to look [a certain way], that there’s no place for me in the ordained ministry.” So she dresses in all the colors of the rainbow and then some.
Mpho Tutu also has her dad’s sly sense of humor.
The moderator asked her how she felt being raised by such great parents. With the crack timing of a stand-up comic, she shot back: “I have to agree with you. My mom is one of the most extraordinary women on the planet.”