In 1990, Desmond Tutu, archbishop of Cape Town, made what would turn out to be his last visit to Canada. Michael Ingham, then bishop of the west-coast diocese of New Westminster, travelled with him throughout that visit and organized much of the trip. He recalls when Tutu arrived in Toronto, the Anglican church had arranged for him to stay at a Ramada hotel near Bloor and Yonge—one of the city’s most prominent intersections—where the management insisted on upgrading Tutu to the presidential suite, free of charge.
“When Desmond walked in and saw the size—it took up two floors—he immediately said, ‘We should have a party,’” Ingham says.
Tutu proceeded to invite not dignitaries nor church heads, but all the hotel’s service staff to the party. Servers, waiters, busboys. He even insisted the armed police officers who had been sent to guard his door come in for a drink.
“The whole place was packed and Desmond was the life and soul of the party,” says Ingham. “You could see he had a real desire for people who were not among the rich and famous to be cared for, respected and acknowledged. Every time he met the staff in the halls the rest of his stay, he would shake their hands and remember them by name.”
Once the party was over, Tutu handed the bill to the hotel’s management.
Ingham, now retired, remembers that party as an example of Tutu’s authenticity and generosity—not to mention his “impish” sense of humour.
Anglican leaders in Canada and around the world have joined Ingham in recent weeks in mourning the death of Tutu—internationally renowned civil rights champion, coordinator of nonviolent opposition to apartheid and leader of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—on December 26.
Ingham worked and travelled with Tutu several times throughout his life. Enough, he says, to know that the late icon was exactly what he appeared to be.
“When you’re staff, you get to see behind the scenes. You get to see the real person,” he says. “In a time when we’re accustomed to fallen heroes, Desmond Tutu was the real thing.”
National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald remembers Tutu for his commitment to finding loving ways to engage divisive social issues.
“In the culture wars that have been so damaging to the Church and society in [North America,] there’s an idea that a dedicated, energetic focus upon your relationship with Jesus is not necessarily important, even detrimental to a pursuit of social justice,” he says. “[Tutu] was a living example of the symbiotic relationship of an enthusiastic and energetic faith and a powerful, aggressive commitment to social justice.”
MacDonald says he met Tutu only on a few occasions, but considered him “a mentor from afar,” having studied his work extensively as it applies to the context of truth and reconciliation, racism and Indigenous relations in Canada.
“His work is essential to understanding the Christian response to racism,” he says. “There has been a tendency in Euro-North America to see [challenging racism] as a nice thing to do. But he helped us see that it was one of the central and essential things for the Christian church to engage.”
Throughout his activism, Tutu admonished the use of violence by both the South African government and its detractors while also encouraging Western nations to understand violence from the oppressed as a symptom of the hopelessness and frustration of South Africa’s black majority. Under his leadership, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided an influential example in exposing and addressing wrongdoing on a national scale.
From 2008 to 2015, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) drew on that example as it investigated the damage of the residential school system, says MacDonald. He recalls hearing repeated references to Tutu’s work during his own involvement in the TRC.
While South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission wasn’t the world’s first, he says, “the authenticity and legitimacy that Tutu gave to that process was something that made it desirable for Indigenous people.”
Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, also framed Tutu’s example for Anglicans in terms of the church’s ongoing struggle with its role in the residential school system.
In an email to the Journal, she said, “In a time when our Church has been rightly humbled for its past failures, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the living sign of what we are called to be at our best—passionate for justice, compassionate with and for all people, humble and joy-filled.”
On Facebook, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote, “The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (always known as Arch) is news that we receive with profound sadness—but also with profound gratitude as we reflect upon his life … Arch’s love transformed the lives of politicians and priests, township dwellers and world leaders. The world is different because of this man.”
And Tutu’s compassion didn’t end with victims, survivors and people he considered to be on his side, says MacDonald. The success of his Truth and Reconciliation Commission hinged on his inclusion of the voices of the South African officials who committed the human rights abuses the commission set out to expose. This offered a chance for a more complete and honest account and a chance for the perpetrators to repent, apologize and move forward.
“What he refused to do was ‘otherize’ those who disagreed with him,” MacDonald says. “He embodied the capacity to disagree and not lose a connection. Disagreement without division.”
Ingham points out the same theme in the story of an early 1990s primates’ meeting he and Tutu attended in Northern Ireland. The event was a secret at the time, as the primate of Ireland had invited two high-profile politicians—one a separatist and the other a loyalist—who would not agree to meet publicly. It was right in the middle of the Irish Troubles.
“These two leaders had never been in the same room with each other,” Ingham says. “They were sworn enemies.”
At the end of the evening, the bishops asked then Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, George Carey to send the leaders off with a blessing.
“He gave the most pathetic comment,” says Ingham. “’Let’s give these chaps a hand.’ It fell completely flat.” So, to prevent the meeting from ending on a sour note, Tutu got up and spoke for several minutes, “Thanking these guys for their courage and their honesty. He spoke about what they had learned in South Africa about making peace with your enemy. He saved the evening.”
It was moments like these, says Ingham, that brought home the lesson Tutu had to teach us.
“That the gospel is about justice and reconciliation. It’s not about dressing up in parades or amassing material wealth. It’s about doing justice and walking humbly with God. Desmond was the true model of that.”
St. George’s Cathedral held a funeral mass for Tutu on January 1, 2022 in Cape Town, the diocese where he served as Archbishop from 1986 to 1996. He was 90 years old.