Wednesday, 24 July 2024

A Personal memory of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Three men from Africa had a special importance for my life and faith: Theophilo Kisanji, Julius Nyerere and Desmond Tutu. The sad news of the death of Desmond Tutu inspires me to share with you the personal encounter I had in 1975, together with my fellow teacher Rev Nkaisule Nzowa, with this unique personality.

Since 1974 I was a teacher at the Moravian Theological College in Chunya, Tanzania. Our college belonged to the Association of Theological Institutions in East Africa, and in 1975 my colleague Nkaisule Nzowa and myself were selected to attend the annual meeting of this Association in Arusha. In this conference there were many lectures giving us helpful hints for our work as theological teachers, and one of them was outstanding. It was given by the head of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches, a man called Desmond Tutu. I had never heard of him before, but his lecture was so impressive that I still remember it 47 years later!

My first impression was the way he spoke with a deep commitment, a brilliant mind and sharply looking eyes filled with humour and joy. He reminded us that as theological teachers we bear a great responsibility, as we form those who will lead Christians in fast growing churches. He stressed two points that are crucial for our teaching:

1. Respect the African spirituality! Especially as European Teachers we have a lot to learn in this field and should take care of it as a source of enrichment for the worldwide Christianity.

2. Enable the students to read the Bible in its historical context, making use of the critical Biblical research! Do not follow the advice of racist colonial prejudice saying: 'Africans have a simple and direct belief, and they should read the Bible as it is. They do not need the critical analysis of its historical background.' Tutu opposed this strongly saying that a fundamentalistic reading of the Bible, taking every word literally, is often combined with an authoritarian attitude. The Bible is a book of liberation, for men and women using their minds and reasons without fear!

Brother Nkaisule and I were so impressed by this lecture, that we wanted to meet the lecturer personally and to ask him some more questions. We were told that he had gone to his room, and so we did something I never would dare today: we knocked at his door! He welcomed us, sitting on his bed and wondering about these two audacious young teachers. He had opened a letter and shared with us what he had read: 'I just got a letter from South Africa, and they ask me to consider a call to return to my home country to become the first black Dean of the Anglican Church of South Africa! This would mean that I must leave my work for the Theological Education Fund I started two years ago.' I am not sure what was our reaction, but as I remember we said how much we appreciated his gift as theological teacher and would be sad if he had to give it up.

We all know that he followed the call in the same year, and later even became Archbishop. But in all these positions he remained to be a teacher, not only for students, but for all the people in South Africa and around the world. I never met him again, but I could read some of his books and listen to his speeches on television. He was not an easy man, as he had a prophetic voice that can hurt, but therefore also can heal wounds. He blamed the politics of Apartheid and the cowardice of many churches that did not join the battle against it. After the liberation, he was an important companion of Nelson Mandela, but had no fear to speak openly about corruption in the following times. He could be angry, but never had a grim mind, but always showed joy, saying that those who do dark things are poor themselves, and those fighting for truth and justice are joyful and free. This is what we all can learn from him and will always remember.

Br Dieter Zellweger
President of the Moravian Mission in Switzerland

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