Connecting to South Africa and Desmond Tutu

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Jo Ann Jones

M.Div. '17

In October, 2015, after the Matriculation ceremony, Professor Michael Battle approached me about my interest in traveling to South Africa. He had served as adjutant to Archbishop Tutu from 1993-1994 at Bishopscourt in Cape Town, experiencing his theology and participating with him in a wide array of activities, and I could see in his request a strong vision of revitalizing the Desmond Tutu Center at The General Theological Seminary.

In 1984, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in residence at General Seminary as the Visiting Professor of Anglican Studies when he was notified that he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. After his residence, he maintained his connection, visiting General several times. Based on its long relationship with Archbishop Tutu, the Seminary later established the Desmond Tutu Center in his honor. As the new Director of the Tutu Center, it has become quite apparent that Battle is seeking to help the center grow into a place focused on the life, theology, advocacy and legacy of Archbishop Tutu.

By January 2016, we had gathered for our pilgrimage to South Africa, the home of Desmond Tutu. The ten of us arrived almost two by two: two seniors, Ann Urinowski and Charles Bauer; two middlers, Sharon Sutton and myself; a Th.D. student, Meg Finnerud and her husband, Ken; a General Seminary Board member, Dianne Audrick Smith, and a faculty member/administrator from Virginia Theological Seminary, Kathryn Glover, in addition to Professor Battle and his friend and colleague the Rev. Edwin Arrison.

The Group with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Group with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Prof. Michael Battle with Archbishop Tutu.
Prof. Michael Battle with Archbishop Tutu.

Battle and Arrison had organized an intense immersion learning experience that appealed to the senses, the intellect, the heart and the soul. We had conversations with theologians, priests and the official biographer of Tutu, a psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who allowed us to explore the Archbishop’s spirituality, his role as catalyst and thorn in the side of many, and what his legacy might be.

The premiere experience was attending Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town at which Archbishop Tutu presided. Afterwards, we had breakfast and conversation with him. We all impressed with Archbishop Tutu's response to Sharon Sutton asking him to identify his passion. His response, “Freedom.”

South Africa is a country of great contrasts, leading Bishop John Walker to write, “…my heart swells with pride in this place and breaks at the beauty of it.” In our time there, the group from General visited places of beauty such as Cape Town and two wineries; and difficult places including Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and where now-former political prisoners serve as tour guides, allowing them to tell their stories themselves. That anyone could overcome the trauma of that experience and be able to return to work there is a resurrection story in itself.

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We also visited a township of shanty houses, served by very public latrines. While there, we visited a minister in the United Church of Christ, whose small church sits on a parcel of land for which he is trying to obtain ownership.

In thinking about developing courses, curricula, sharing materials and students, we heard of the work of Beyers Naude, a Dutch Reformed minister and theologian and a leading Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist, whose papers are archived at the University of Stellenbosch. In addition, we explored possible student exchanges and curriculum development at the University of the Western Cape, which has established a Desmond Tutu center of its own. Archbishop Tutu was a former chancellor there.

We then spent two days in Hermanus at the Volmoed Retreat Center which served as a place of refreshment and renewal for many in the fight against apartheid. We experienced the hopes and dreams of children at a secondary school on their first day of classes and of two young women preparing for exams in agriculture at the township library who look forward to instituting new means of agricultural production in their country.

This trip to South Africa was a formative experience, never to be forgotten, leaving many of us ready to return and committed to the realization of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Seminary.