As we hear the many tributes to Archbishop Desmond Tutu being paid by numerous world leaders, we are left in no doubt that we have lost one of the greatest men of our time.
Desmond Tutu was unique; a man of faith, love and integrity who was never afraid to speak the truth – however uncomfortable – and to fight for the disadvantaged and oppressed. He had great courage and on more than one occasion risked his own life for the sake of others.
When chairing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission he often broke down in tears of compassion for the people presenting their distressing evidence.
However, Archbishop Tutu also had a conspicuous love of life and his sense of humour was never far beneath the surface even in the darkest of situations. His infectious laughter became his ‘trademark’ and - together with his beaming smile - will be remembered by all who knew him.
It is hard to believe that this towering figure served as Honorary Curate at St Augustine’s between 1972 and 1975 when he lived in Chinbrook Road and worked in Bromley for the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches. He initially worked at St Augustine’s with Rev Stanley Elvins (in the last weeks of his life) and then with our Curate, Fr Charles Cartwright who succeeded him as our Vicar in 1973.
Those of us who were part of the St Augustine’s family at that time quickly grew to know and love Fr Desmond, his wife Leah and their family. For three years we experienced the same remarkable personality and characteristics that were later to be shared with South Africa and the world. We were captivated by his powerful (and entertaining!) sermons and by the love he showed us all. We all remember him standing at the West Door after each service calling out “any more for a holy handshake”.
We were certainly very sad to say “good bye” to the Tutus when they returned to South Africa in 1975 for Fr Desmond to become the first black Dean of Johannesburg. This was followed by his Consecration as a Bishop and further senior church appointments culminating in his final ecclesiastical post as Archbishop of Cape Town.
It is characteristic of Desmond Tutu that (whatever pressure he was under) he always remembered to send anniversary greetings to Rose and Cecil Carter, his former neighbours (and babysitters) in Chinbrook Road, until the end of their lives.
There will be many current members of St Augustine’s who will remember Archbishop Desmond returning to us in May 2007 in order to Dedicate our New East Wall. The church was packed for this happy occasion when we were even invaded by a BBC film unit. This was soon followed by a ‘Desmond Tutu Songs of Praise’ when some of his favourite hymns were recorded and filmed in our church.
We have kept in touch with “The Arch” over the years and have sent him greetings each year for his birthday on October 7th. Until recently we have received personal replies in which he referred to his happy memories of his time at St Augustine’s.
There is obviously so much more one could write about Desmond Tutu’s achievements on the international stage but I will leave that to others. Many of us will have our own personal memories of this wonderful man. I treasure a rather blurry photograph (screen-shot from the BBC video) of the moment when he came over to give me a hug during the wall dedication service.
We thank God for “the world’s best known Christian” and for the privilege of knowing him. We pray that his influence may continue for years to come.