“A Saint is a Sinner who Keeps on Trying”
I am finding it difficult to write and reflect upon the works of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, as these two individuals seem superhuman to me. Rather than offering my thoughts on their ideas and experiences, my preference would be to absorb their words, listen to their hearts as reflected in their stories, and contemplate – for a very long time – the writings in their two books we are reading, No Future Without Forgiveness and Long Walk to Freedom. Only then, might I feel comfortable carefully and mindfully putting my thoughts out there as more fully digested reflections and insights. So, it is with some trepidation that I proceed here, not wanting to minimize their story in my limited perceptions, and realizing I only understand a small amount of the concepts they are communicating. I hope to digest more of their wisdom and that of their peers over the next few weeks and months and years and incorporate that into my journey of growth and development.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu offer a deep consideration of human nature and our potential for good and evil. They speak of atrocious harm done by one group of humans to another. They also point to the best of human qualities, that when embraced, allow us to accomplish transcendent reconciliation, peace, and growth. In their country of South Africa, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela describe accounts of extreme evil and also extreme love.
It is interesting to me that Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela, well-known, revered, and admired by many for their ability to live into the best qualities of humanity, seemed to see themselves as equals to their human sisters and brothers and by no means above the ordinary. In his book, Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela, in a 1975 letter to Winnie Mandela during her time of incarceration in Kroonstad Prison, wrote:
“…the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. …Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Nelson Mandela communicates that anyone has what is required to grow into a wise, selfless, insightful person, with hard work and self-reflection.
Desmond Tutu, likewise, appeared to lead an everyday life well-grounded in his humanness and resistant to setting himself apart from others based on his status and reputation. He displayed this connection and unity with people in the way he interacted with them daily. In May of 2008, Desmond and Leah Tutu traveled to Portland, Oregon at the invitation of the staff of a small nonprofit, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO). The Archbishop spoke at the University of Portland to over 4,000 people. I joined the EMO team in 2010 and heard many great stories of the Tutus visit. Some of my favorite stories involved my friend Carla, who was the EMO development director and designated as the Tutus’ driver and host during their five-day stay. She described them as “funny and warm” and said it was quite easy to feel close to them. Of Archbishop Tutu, Carla said, “A wonderful, grounded, warm person who fills any room with a kind of pleasant peace, the Archbishop himself was charming. He talked about serious things, eloquently, at the lecture, but when he was offstage, he was playful, whimsical, and fun.” Carla tells a humorous story about driving the Tutus back to their hotel in a downpour and pitch-black night after the speaking event at the University of Portland. She got lost, trying to take a short cut. While passing the intersection of Rosa Parks Way and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Desmond Tutu expressed his pleasure that we had streets named for “such heroes.” They passed through the intersection several times, as Carla tried to find her way, and each time the Archbishop commented teasingly, “Ah yes, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr… again.” Both Leah and Desmond Tutu were personal, caring, and interactive with the many people in their midst, blessing babies, stopping to talk to children, and according to Carla, “stopping to shake the hand of every doorman, receptionist, and janitor we met.” Following their visit, Desmond Tutu kept in touch with their new friends from Portland, writing letters, offering prayers, and referring to Carla as his “dear Chauffeuse.”
I have often wondered, with the many people that Archbishop Tutu met in his travels and in his home country of South Africa, how did he manage to stay in touch with his humble friends in Portland? How did he make time and maintain interest in these people with whom he spent five short days? Perhaps, it was his deep value of each individual and the inherent connection he believed to be amongst all humans. Maybe the answer is found in the Archbishop’s discussion around “ubuntu.” He says, when you have ubuntu, “then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. We belong in a bundle of life.” This would explain his understanding of connection with his friends in Oregon, and around the globe.
Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela embodied some of the most positive qualities obtainable by humans. Their unique experiences and the unique convergence of world events during their lifetime offered extremely challenging circumstances through which they persevered and emerged resilient and courageous. Their message of hope, persistence, forgiveness, generosity, and connectedness is challenging, reminding us that within us all is the potential to develop character that transforms not only ourselves, but contributes to creating families, communities, nations, and a world in which forgiveness is extended, reconciliation is forged, and trust among enemies is eventually possible. I look forward to further learning about these individuals and their peers as we set out on our venture to South Africa.
 Mandela, Nelson, Conversations with Myself. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010), 211-212.
 Tutu, Desmond, No Future Without Forgiveness. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999), 31.
6 responses to ““A Saint is a Sinner who Keeps on Trying””
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reflections on Desmond Tutu. It brings me great joy when I hear of our faith heroes being just as reflective of Christ-like character as they are on stage. What a gift Tutu was to humanity. He admitted in “No Future without Forgiveness” that he was a man who would easily laugh and easily cry. He felt that being a deeply emotional man would not serve him well in leading the emotionally taxing TRC (pg. 144). But this may have been a surprising strength. And what is remarkable is that he, someone who experienced and listened to stories of great oppression and abuse, could have easily given into hopelessness. But he is a deeply joyful, empathetic man. What lessons of leadership do we learn from a man who has, despite all the horrors of the world he has come face to face with, has chosen to ubantu, joy, and faith? The life of Tutu is an invitation to chose joy in a broken world – cracking jokes along the way when one takes a wrong turn.
Thanks for your comments, David. I love the invitation to choose joy, despite the brokenness in our lives and in the world around us.
Jenny, I commend your approach to digesting and processing the words from our readings. The words that come to mind to describe your course are: circumspect, mindful, and intentional. And I would also add reverence.
I think the qualities listed that Mandela and Bishop Tutu embodied could also be described as faith in action. An embodiment of faith working through love. I believe that is the only way there could be transcendent reconciliation— a profound description.
Thanks so much for your comments and thoughts, Audrey. I like your phasing, “an embodiment of faith working through love.” Such a goal to aim for in our lives!
Great post. I loved the quote from “conversations with myself.” I couldn’t agree more about finding yourself through isolation. Although I have never been in prison, I can only imagine that it opens up the opportunity for some serious self-reflection. I often dream with my wife of a world with no notifications, distractions, and so many obligations. Some of my most precious times we’ve shared together and also that I’ve experienced include long meditation and prayer. Taking a topic directly to God and thinking about it with an open mind and open Spirit is extremely powerful and I believe removing ourselves in a way helps us hear what God is trying to say to us. There is something special about solitude and I think in many ways the devil himself (or the forces of darkness) try to keep us distracted. They try and keep us from being our best. From understanding our potential. We get sucked into the fast world and years go by before we can even stop and see if it’s actually going in the right direction, or more importantly God’s direction. I don’t ever want to go to prison but I am jealous of the time Mandela had to think in seclusion.
Thank you, Michael, for your comments and thoughts! I especially appreciate your comment that, “We get sucked into the fast world and years go by before we can even stop and see if it’s actually going in the right direction, or more importantly God’s direction.” I am actually addressing this in my project and seeking health and refuge through a more intentional connecting with God and each other through nature.
Looking forward to learning together with the group in Cape Town!