In my January In Good Faith column, I write about an encounter (sort of) with the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the inspiration of walking on hallowed ground.
In the Footsteps of Holiness
One of the things I cherish about visiting hallowed ground is that sense of walking in thefootsteps of those who exist in our minds as larger-than-life figures.
As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I once toured the dugout and clubhouse of the old Memorial Stadium. As a young Orioles fan, walking the same ground as Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken was awe inspiring. As an adult, I had a similar experience sitting in the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Being in the physical space where her gentle, yet iron-willed courage played out was incredibly moving to me.
It was in this vein that I learned of another such encounter, one fueled by love and justice. In the days after Archbishop Desmond Tutu died, I was reminded that he once officiated a wedding at the parish I serve. This remarkable and holy man had walked down our aisle and stood at our altar. He had gazed upon our stained glass windows and stood in our Memorial Garden.
In the days following Bishop Tutu’s death we, along with churches throughout the world, rang bells at St. John’s to offer thanks for his extraordinary witness to the demands of justice and the reconciling power of love. The groom from that 1999 wedding day joined us for a time of prayer and reflection.
Stewart Ting Chong served on Tutu’s staff for seven years during the apartheid era in South Africa. For Stewart, Bishop Tutu was more than a global icon, he was a friend, mentor, and confidant. In reflecting on his friend, he wrote, “There was, for me, no one braver, more outspoken in the defense of the oppressed, the persecuted, and the discriminated, and no one more prayerfully contemplative than the Arch.”
Several years ago, I was privileged to travel with a group from our parish to visit South Africa. We visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, toured Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work of Bishop Tutu.
This transformative, inspiring, and heart breaking pilgrimage was made even more poignant when I learned of Bishop Tutu’s connection to St. John’s. Somehow the experiences we shared during that time, which continue to resonate, were made that much more real by the knowledge that the archbishop had, for a brief time, joined us on our journey.
As Stewart also wrote in the hours after the bells tolled in honor of his friend, “The Archbishop’s death is not the end of the battle he waged for goodness. It is the beginning for each one of us who holds his name in high esteem. Discrimination, injustice, persecution and oppression will not end unless we pick up his mantle of righteousness and call to account those who continue to tarnish the ideals that he had so faithfully strived to achieve. Let us find our voice and speak out against oppression. Let us speak out against the injustices inflicted on communities around the world. Let us hold accountable those who plunder the coffers intended to help the weak, hungry, and destitute. And let us put the words we speak into action with righteous indignation and leave this world a better and kinder place for the generations that follow. Let us pledge to continue his work.”
To which all we can do is say, “Amen.” And then get to work.