By Nicholas Okaijah-Thompson
When South Africa’s powerful anti-apartheid leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, transitioned to eternity recently, he joined colleagues like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. His death, coming just a day after the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, shocked the world.
The worldwide outpouring of tributes to Archbishop Tutu must cause us to embrace his preaching of Christ’s salvation and ensure that social justice prevails simultaneously.
Rightly, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called him a “leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the Biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”
It is time for the West to look to Africa for the spiritual sustenance and the moral compass which Archbishop Tutu embodied. Significantly, Africa currently produces more Christians than any continent, while Christianity is declining in the West.
After the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, I began to admire the theologian’s courageous campaign against the brutal white-minority apartheid system. Although an African like the Archbishop, our paths never crossed on the motherland. We came into contact when he visited Chicago in January 1986 at the invitation of Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor. Our meeting was brief, but I cherish it the most; it was seeing one of the greatest of the Africans.
Our encounter came after Archbishop Tutu had given a lecture at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. I had arrived late and would not be allowed into the packed chapel. I settled outside with scores of others to catch a glimpse of this great and brave man.
I positioned myself at a spot where I could fully view him. As he emerged out of the chapel accompanied by Mayor Washington, Archbishop Tutu, with his characteristic smiles, returned the greetings of his numerous admirers. Amid tight security, as he passed by about 100 feet away, I burst out, “Victory for South Africa’s Blacks.”
I believe he heard my African accent. He paused and he turned his eyes in my direction, raising his right hand in acknowledgment. Having caught his attention, I spoke out loudly, “I’m an African brother from Ghana.” To this, the charismatic leader responded, “Ghana! Ok, brother.”
I was so thrilled that I had expressed my solidarity to the anti-apartheid leader; at the time, I was the vice-president of a city college’s student group against apartheid.
Later as a Chicago Defender reporter, I missed a telephone interview with the Nobel Peace Prize winner while he was in New York, due to a scheduling conflict.
During a study tour of South Africa with students of Chicago State University in the early 2000s, I observed the peaceful outcome of his work in reconciling the country’s Black and white people after the collapse of apartheid.
I still cherish the moment I met him, and I am devastated by his death. As a fellow ordained minister, death has robbed me of a mentor. But the Scriptures teach that to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
I believe Archbishop Tutu would echo the words of the Apostle Paul, when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Embracing Archbishop Tutu’s preaching of salvation and ensuring social justice would make the world a better place.
He has left the world a rich legacy as a champion against oppression and injustice worth emulating. When comes another! Fare thee well, Archbishop Tutu!
Nicholas Okaijah-Thompson heads the Chicago-based Africa Resurrection and Restoration Ministries (ARRM). He holds degrees in political science, journalism, and theology.