Editor’s note • Desmond Tutu — the small but mighty justice-seeking, peace-pursuing, forgiveness-granting Anglican archbishop — died Sunday in South Africa at age 90. In 2002, he came to Utah for the 2002 Winter Games (and helped carry the Olympic flag). During that visit, he sat down with Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack. Here is her story from that interview:
Behind the scenes at the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1984 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, stared at the large, cream-colored jacket.
The custom-made coat would dwarf Tutu, one of eight distinguished celebrities carrying the Olympic flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium.
But the 5-foot-4 Anglican cleric simply shrugged, threw it on over his other jacket and, turning to a volunteer, asked, “Do I look like a rock star?”
David Profeta of San Pedro, Calif., wardrobe supervisor for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, smiled and nodded.
“He was funny and appreciative, absolutely the most charming man I’ve ever met,” Profeta said. “To be one of the most influential men of the 20th century and at the same time so genuine is just amazing.”
Those qualities were much on display during Tutu’s weeklong stay in Utah, during which he participated in panel discussions on human rights and the potential for sports to assist refugees; presided at an Episcopal service at St. Mark’s Cathedral; and sat for numerous news media interviews.
One minute he was speaking passionately about the need for Western countries to write off Africa’s massive debt and the horrors of women enslaved in prostitution, while in the next instant he was offering a self-deprecating joke or gyrating on stage to rhythmic drumming. These were hard-won traits for the peace activist, who helped bring down the South African system of apartheid and officiated at that nation’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, which exposed government and individual atrocities but meted out no punishment.
Tutu has become one of the world’s most visible advocates of forgiveness as a political option — despite the atrocities he has seen.
He traveled to Rwanda in 1995 after that nation’s genocide of Tutsis by Hutus, where he saw skulls with daggers still embedded in them outside a church.
“The scene was a deeply disturbing and moving monument to the viciousness that as human beings we are capable of unleashing against fellow human beings,” Tutu wrote in his 1999 book, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” “I told them that the cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal that had characterized their national history had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice because without it there was no future.”
But how can America forgive the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?
“Forgiveness is not easy,” Tutu told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Tutu uses his own 46-year marriage as an example. “It is still difficult in the privacy of the bedroom to say, ‘Sorry,’” he said. “Yet it is a powerful source of new beginnings. It means, ‘OK, I give you another chance to make a fresh start.’”
If husbands and wives have trouble doing it, Tutu said, “how much more difficult it becomes for whole communities.”
No matter how painful, however, it is essential.
“In our country, if we had not decided to forgive each other, it would have gone up in flames,” he said. “Tit for tat, an eye for an eye, doesn’t give stability or security.”
Tutu told 13-year-old Robert Hatch, a Salt Lake City youth who is working on a book about heroes, of his admiration for America’s black sports figures — Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson and especially Jesse Owens, a black sprinter who took the gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics despite that country’s preference for white, Aryan youth.
“I love the way he disappointed Hitler,” Tutu said.
For all the profundity of his ideas, Tutu is possibly best known for his quick humor, and his instinct toward intimacy of touch and gesture. He laughs easily and quickly and seems to take the inconvenience of fame in stride.
After the Reebok human rights discussion, panelists began dancing on stage. Uninhibited, Tutu joined the frolic.
And when the children at St. Mark’s donned paper miters as they greeted the archbishop, he quipped, “We have some wonderful bishops down here” and gave them a round of “high-fives.”
His eyes glisten, says Hatch, “as if he’s always thinking of a joke.”
Not long after the jacket fitting at the Opening Ceremony, the U.S. Secret Service shut down Rice-Eccles Stadium’s elevator to protect President George W. Bush as he left the gathering.
That left the famous flag-bearers marooned on the top floor of the stadium with no choice but to walk down nine stories — 18 flights — of stairs.
Astronaut John Glenn, former Polish President Lech Walesa and filmmaker Steven Spielberg took the plunge and started down. Well after they reached ground level, the 71-year-old Tutu arrived on the arm of Australian gold medal runner Cathy Freeman, who had waited to help him. He was out of breath but without complaint.
“He was exactly what I thought he would be,” said KUER radio’s Doug Fabrizio, who interviewed Tutu for his hourlong “Radio West” program. “He was brimming with joy. He rears back and completely laughs.”
Before the interview began, Tutu asked Fabrizio if he could say a prayer. After Fabrizio agreed, the South African bishop prayed simply for a good interview.
“He was a man who absolutely knew his relationship with God and realized that God intended him to be joyful,” Fabrizio said. “It was my favorite Olympic experience.”
A woman whose family hosted Tutu at their Salt Lake City home had a similar moment. While driving in the car, she told the bishop she wasn’t sure she believed in God.
“Oh, my dear,” Tutu said, looking her in the eye. “I’ll take you to heaven with me and then you’ll believe it.”