Christians who made a difference by Rosemary Dawson: Desmond Tutu (b 1931)
GROWING up against a background of apartheid and discrimination, Desmond Tutu witnessed his fellow black South Africans being forced to live in specific areas and denied the right to vote.
One day while Desmond was out with his mother, a white priest – Father Trevor Huddleston – tipped his hat to her. It was the first time he had ever seen a white man pay such respect to a black woman. The incident made him realise that he need not accept the status quo, and that religion could promote racial equality.
He became one of the most eloquent and effective voices in the fight against apartheid, which ended in 1993. A year later, Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president.
In his teens Desmond contracted tuberculosis and spent 18 months in a sanatorium. The experience led to his wishing to become a doctor, but his family could not afford the tuition. Instead, he studied education and graduated as a teacher.
Frustrated with racial restrictions, he eventually left teaching to study for the priesthood, and he was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960. He gained his master’s degree in theology at King’s College London in 1966.
Desmond went on to become the first black person appointed the Anglican Dean and, later, Bishop of Johannesburg. As general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, he was a leading spokesman for the rights of black South Africans. In the 1980s he drew national and international attention to apartheid.
The award of the Nobel peace prize in 1984 elevated his reputation.
Two years later Desmond Tutu became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, the highest position in the South African Anglican Church.
In retirement his voice is still heard calling for social justice. He continues to speak for all oppressed peoples struggling for equality and freedom.
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