By Dan R. Ebener
For The Catholic Messenger
I still remember the moment I found out that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was coming to the Quad Cities. I was working at the Diocese of Davenport’s chancery on a Saturday morning when Bishop Gerald O’Keefe, who had invited Tutu on behalf of the Pacem in Terris Coalition, rushed excitedly into my office with the letter of acceptance.
This was by far the most excited I had ever seen Bishop O’Keefe. I called a reporter at The Quad City Times with the news and he hurried over to my office to get whatever information we had. This was 1987, before the internet, so researching Tutu was not an easy task. Nevertheless, the next morning, I awoke to the largest headline I ever recall in the Times: “Tutu to QC.”
It’s fun to recall these moments even as we mourn the death of Bishop Tutu these 34 years later. His visit rallied the whole community, who showed up to create an over-flowing crowd at Lee Lohmann Arena of St. Ambrose University. The Times helped with logistics by flying Tutu here from Detroit on the Lee Enterprises private jet. They were hoping for an exclusive interview with him but he slept most of the way to Moline, Illinois.
My most vivid memory of Tutu was that of a humble, joyful, simple man who loved to engage in self-deprecating humor. His smile could light up a room and his laugh brought a smile to everyone present. His presence was warm and charismatic. His talk was filled with stories.
He began his talk with a joke about an iterant preacher whose driver heard his sermon so many times that he offered to switch places at the next stop. The driver gave a stirring presentation and received a standing ovation. Then someone from the back of the room asked a tough question. The driver responded, “That is such an easy question, I think I will have my driver answer it.”
To those who tried to claim neutrality in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Tutu was fond of telling the story about a mouse whose tail was caught on an elephant’s foot. To claim neutrality in such a situation, he said, was not really being neutral but taking the position of the elephant. On the other hand, he said, God is not neutral in such situations. He always takes the side of the weak and powerless.
Tutu’s message reflected the truth and reconciliation that were the themes of his life and the commission he led in South Africa. He talked about all people being bound up by a common humanity and that every person was precious. He showed wonder in God because so many diverse people could all be made in God’s image.
Speaking at a time when apartheid had not yet ended in his country, and while his friend Nelson Mandela was still in prison, Tutu spoke of a hope that is born of compassion, justice and forgiveness. He likened hope to that small ray of light that occurs in the darkest hour. It comes when we open the curtains to let the sun shine in, and open the windows to let the fresh air in.
His efforts were tireless and his message was timeless. His visit to the Quad Cities was a special opportunity for us to meet a person who truly changed the world around him, and the world itself. It was a blessing that he shared this visit with us.
(Dan R. Ebener is director of Parish Planning for the Diocese of Davenport.)