Today at St. Alban’s Cathedral in Pretoria, South and again at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa at 10am (South African Time at https://www.facebook.com/stgeorgescathedralcapetown) on Saturday, January 1st, 2022 one of the great ones of our time has and will be remembered after his departure from us on December 26th, 2021, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a humble man profoundly grounded in his devotional faith and way of life. Even before his departure, he requested that the least expensive coffin be used and only a modest presentation of carnations. It was his faith that centered him in his advocacy for human dignity, human rights, women’s empowerment, stewardship of God’s creation and much more.
I give personal and vocational testimony to this not only because of his global and public profile which many of us have come to know but because I am honored to have called him mentor and friend. I met Archbishop Tutu and his lovely wife, Mrs. Leah Tutu, when I began my full-time Christian ministry as the Executive Director of the council of churches in Trenton, NJ. Sadly, I was the only woman of African Descent serving in such a role at that time in the USA while still in my mid-to late 20’s. This came after my full-time ministry as an Associate Pastor in Hartford, CT while also working at the CBS television affiliate.
As for the occasion of my meeting Archbishop Tutu, it was my President, the Rev. Dr. T.J. Jemison and General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, of my national church affiliation, the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., who asked me to represent our national church at the All Africa Conference of Churches Assembly (AACC-CETA) in Lomé, Togo that provided this occasion. I had been asked to serve as the organizer of the national delegation of African American Church leaders to the Assembly of the AACC-CETA Assembly on behalf of Partners in Ecumenism (PIE). PIE was the African American ministry and mission related to the National Council of Churches of Christ and Church World Service. Upon my return I was asked to report on my visit to the AACC-CETA at the Mid -Winter Board meeting of my national church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at their invitation and hosting. I was told I was the first ordained woman in my national church invited to speak from the national platform at that time.
As it turned out, Archbishop Tutu was elected as the AACC-CETA President at their Assembly, and the Rev. Jose Chipenda from Angola was elected to become the AACC-CETA General Secretary while I was there. It was a critical time for the churches in Africa. It was at this Assembly they renewed their resolve to stay together amidst profound challenges. I was honored to give witness to Rev. Chipenda’s and then Bishop Tutu’s willingness to lead the AACC-CETA at a critical time in the life of the churches affiliated with the AACC-CETA. They gave renewed and timely profile and visibility that helped to give the church leaders of Africa the courage to find a renewed way forward and to find new resources to carry out their important Christian unity mission and ministry that continues today.
I was honored to meet Archbishop Tutu and his wife when having lunch with one of my faith mentors, Mr. Willis Logan. He was serving as Africa Secretary of Church World Service at that time and presently serves as leader of Operation Crossroads Africa where I also served with my local African hosts in traditional communities in the provinces in three different countries over three periods of time prior to these days. He asked me if I would like to meet them since they were sitting a few tables over. I was young and didn’t know if this would be a bother, but he said it wouldn’t be a bother and that they were encouraging of young people’s leadership and young women’s leadership in ordained ministry in a season where this was not necessarily assumed or embraced. We had a very happy meeting and finished our lunch together! I was greatly encouraged and inspired for my journey and call I have had and still have. Ever since those early days, I have been honored to know them and visit with them in various ways including during the most turbulent days during the anti-apartheid struggle when I visited with them then trying to do “my little bit” (constant reference of Archbishop Tutu) as part of the anti-apartheid movement.
I last visited Archbishop Tutu and Mrs. “Leah” Tutu in person with our Pan African Women’s Ecumenical Empowerment Network sister leader and World Council of Churches President from Africa in 2019, Professor Mary Anne Plaatjies-Van- Huffel (https://www.oikoumene.org/news/wcc-mourns-passing-of-rev-prof-dr-mary-anne-plaatjies-van-huffel) with her husband. We visited in the home of Archbishop and Mrs. Tutu at the Cape coast in South Africa. Who would have known we would say goodbye to Professor Van Huffel last year and Archbishop Tutu now?
This year I was also honored to be at the 90th celebration of Archbishop Tutu online in October of this year where his legacy was wonderfully celebrated! May his legacy inspire us anew with and for All of us. You can learn more about the profile of Archbishop Tutu’s work from a faith perspective at: https://www.oikoumene.org/news/world-mourns-loss-of-archbishop-desmond-tutu.
May he rest in eternal peace, rising glory and power!
Prayerfully with Thanksgiving for Archbishop Tutu,
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
Former Executive Director of The Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis &
Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry (TEAM) in New Jersey
Sr. Associate for Pan African and Orthodox Faith Engagement at Bread for the World in