A case of the African giggles

Photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu by Elke Wetzig

Canon Robert Murch pays his own tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recalling a meeting in the mid-sixties in Wells, Somerset.

I spent 1965/1966 as a theological student at Wells Theological College. A recently retired army officer, I knew little about the Church of England and even less about theology, but it was an education which I found to be a great joy. The college had the reputation of being the best country club in the Church of England. However, in my era it was very progressive, liberal and warmly hospitable to a great variety of students. Some came with their families and children.  This group of trainee clerics were embraced by the beautiful bath stone Cathedral and the ancient Vicars’ Close. The charms of the city and the friendliness of the Somerset folk all combined to provide an excellent environment to learn the trade of being Church of England clergy.

 The College principal Reverend Tom Baker had his eye firmly on a larger world and the future for which we were being prepared. It was with this perspective in mind that one day he invited we students to meet an African ‘refugee’: the Reverend Desmond Tutu, who had escaped South Africa as things were getting rather difficult for him.

We had gathered in the sleepy library, the sunshine gently caressing the oaken shelves weighed down with the countless volumes which, in turn, carried their own burden of theological thought together with a little dust. Suddenly, there was this vibrant personality in our midst, full of energy and laughter, giggles and smiles, telling us about the tragedy of South Africa with its unjust racial oppression.

 The calm Wells Cathedral Green had been struck by a gale of the Holy Spirit  pouring from our visitor from Africa. His message was very simple:

 There could be no world peace, without world justice: a social justice, which meant that, as God’s children, we were to care for one another with the God- given resources of our wonderful world.

With chuckles and smiles, Desmond encouraged every one of us to join in God’s task of creating a just world. Desmond prayed for us all and our future ministries and then, as quickly as he had come, he was gone.

It was an unforgettable experience for all of us

This Christmas the news was full of Desmond Tutu’s death and, as a consequence, many things will be said of his remarkable Christian ministry. I join with millions in giving heartfelt thanks to God for such a beautiful life that taught us so much.

Yet, I find myself deeply troubled as I think of today’s refugees and asylum seekers as they scramble up the pebbled beaches of Kent, having faced danger and hardship to reach our shores, then having to live almost like prisoners in strange rooms, in limbo, as they endure months of assessments of their claims and the agony of waiting for answers. They are expected to exist on £5.50 per day, yet all they want is to live here safely, work and pay their way. Somehow this is not possible.  

 Then I consider the Cornish daffodil crop which is rotting for want of pickers.  Care homes are desperate for staff for our elderly. There is a shortage of hospital workers, and countless other businesses who could do with people.   Yet we bottle up these asylum seekers who bring their talents and expertise to us and, if they were given support and encouragement, could be contributing as good citizens straight away.  Maybe in time they will be able to return to their home countries, restoring their numerous skills and using them to heal and develop the afflicted lands they have been forced to leave.  

Yes, old clergy do dream dreams.    I can still clearly picture a lively asylum- seeking African clergyman in the Wells Theological library.

 My dreams and prayers are that amongst the many who come ashore in Kent in our time, there are people of faith and energy to be found who, given time, will one day make a great difference for the better in our troubled world, just as Desmond did.  Such thoughts have now given me a case of the African giggles, Tutu-style. It’s one infection which would do us all good.

“When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu