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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
This photo of Desmond Tutu at the Goed Geld Gala had the On Being staff smiling today. For more joy, listen to our program with the sage, A God of Surprises. 

(Photo by Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo of Desmond Tutu at the Goed Geld Gala had the On Being staff smiling today. For more joy, listen to our program with the sage, A God of Surprises. 

(Photo by Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images)

This photo of Desmond Tutu at the Goed Geld Gala had the On Being staff smiling today. For more joy, listen to our program with the sage, A God of Surprises.

(Photo by Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images)

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If you only listen to one thing today, let it be this. A message from Desmond Tutu that we can’t hear enough in this life.

There’s no question about the reality of evil, of injustice, of suffering, but at the center of this existence is a heart beating with love.

That you and I and all of us are incredible. I mean, we really are remarkable things. That we are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness.

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Tuesday Evening Melody: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” by Soweto Gospel Choir

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

To open our show with Desmond Tutu, we chose the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version of South Africa’s national anthem. The song pulls together two anthems in five different languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. It goes:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika — South Afrika.

Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.

The history of how this anthem came into being is fascinating. Well worth a read.

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Desmond Tutu, the Embodiment of the Qualities of the God He Preaches: Compassion, Justice, Patience, Surprise, and Humor

by Krista Tippett, host

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Closes His Eyes After His Interview with Krista TippettPhoto by Trent Gilliss

Desmond Tutu had long been at the top of my list of people I wanted to interview. I met him in the woods of southern Michigan in 2010, where he was beginning a few days of retreat. He was visibly tired, yet utterly delightful and larger than life. And passion overtook his tiredness as soon as we began to speak about the history he has helped to shape and how he has found meaning within it.

Desmond Tutu’s intellectual intensity and spiritual gravity are tempered by a mischievous wit and a raucous laugh. All of these qualities are abundant in conversation with him, and they infused one of the first stories he told me about his path to political resistance — his realization at some point that “if these white people had intended keeping us under, they shouldn’t have given us the Bible.”

He tells me of preaching and speaking with mature women who were generically called “Annie” by their white employers and grown men forever called “boy” — and handing them the “dynamite” of the Bible as they headed out of church and back into the world. When someone asks you who you are, he recalls telling them, you can say, “I am a God-carrier.” This kind of inner liberation, one life at a time, yielded eventually to an outer upheaval of one of the most entrenched governments of social brutality in modern memory.

As I finally approached this opportunity to speak with Desmond Tutu, I was also deeply aware that South Africa’s transformation, like its previous status quo — like life itself — has been dynamic, not static. The extraordinary accomplishment of a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy has not led to the easy eradication of social and racial inequity.

Violent crime has assumed epic proportions. And, as Desmond Tutu puts it, he has been reminded that original sin doesn’t discriminate on a racial basis — South Africa’s new generations of black leadership are not immune from corruption both personal and political. As he has watched the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he has realized ever more deeply that this was not a closed effort in time, but the origination of a national project that will be the work of generations.

One of his most sobering learnings in that light has been, he says, how “damaged” non-white South Africans were as they entered a new era — and damaged not merely by 50 years of apartheid, but by 300 years of colonialism, which distorted their very sense of themselves. He shares a stunning, saddening story of getting on a plane to Nigeria and seeing, to his great pride, that it was being flown by two black pilots — a first in his lifetime. When awful turbulence hit, he found himself reflexively wishing there were white men in that cockpit to lead them to safety. From such self-knowledge and personal suffering, Desmond Tutu has created a life of deep wisdom and healing, which he extends to all he meets.

At one and the same time, this is a human being overflowing with delight and a kind of infectious spiritual glee. I have never heard anything quite so joyful, or so moving, as the description Desmond Tutu gives me of voting for the first time at the age of 63, comparing it to falling in love — of being transformed from a cipher to a person. And just as vulnerably and powerfully, he reflects on the limits of politics, which turn out to be even more exacting than the decades of struggle that political freedom entailed.

He describes this in theological terms as a movement from being “free from” to being “free for.” He continues to long for a South African society defined not merely by equality under law but by true human flourishing. And the last few centuries of Europe’s history of world war, tyranny, and the Jewish Holocaust, he says — breaking into his raucous laughter even as he makes a deadly serious point — give him great hope for Africa’s eventual progress.

This same long, indeed biblical view of time animates Desmond Tutu’s lifelong insistence that “God is in charge.” He believes as passionately now as he did decades ago that evil, injustice, and suffering will not have the last word. Though he does, he jokes, often ask God if he would please make it a little more obvious that He is in charge.

In the end, Desmond Tutu is the embodiment of the qualities of God he preaches: compassion, a fierce love of justice, divine patience, a capacity to surprise, and a wicked sense of humor. His 21st-century stature as one of the leading clerics of the Anglican church born in England — which was implicated in every one of the 300 years of South Africa’s collective trauma — is another divine irony.

"At the center of this existence is a heart beating with love," says Desmond Tutu. "You and I, and all of us, are incredible… We are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness." Such statements fly in the face of reality as defined by newspaper headlines. But we can only wonder at them, ponder them, and honor them from the mouth of this man, who knows evil and injustice as intimately as he seems to know the mind and heart of God.

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The Damage of Apartheid on Desmond Tutu’s Psyche

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

During our interview a few months before he retired in 2010, the Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu shared this heart-wrenching story of flying on a plane out of Lagos, Nigeria. As he boarded the plane, he was beaming with pride, he says, when he saw two black pilots shepherding the plane. While in the air, the plane experienced some bitter turbulence, and at that moment he admits:

"The first thought that came to my mind was ‘Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?’

Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu is a pivotal figure in helping galvanize South Africa’s improbable and peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in the 1990s. And he’s been an active participant ever since in the country’s developing story ever since. Despite all the discussions and Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, he helps us realize that the amount of damage done to black South Africans’ psyches is deep-seated. A sober reminder that history is present in incalculable ways.

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Desmond Tutu’s Letter of Affirmation to the Presbyterian Church

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church, NYCThis May the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed and ratified an amendment to its Book of Order, which now permits “the ordination of non-celibate unmarried persons, including gays and lesbians.” The decision has created tumult within the denomination itself and with other branches of the Church, most notably by the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, which overwhelmingly decided to end its relationship with its U.S. cousin.

But, the PCUSA is also receiving some support from some worthy advocates, including this letter from Anglican Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu:

Dear Brother in Christ,

I am writing you with the request that you share these thoughts with my brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):  

It is incumbent upon all of God’s children to speak out against injustice. It is sometimes equally important to speak in solidarity when justice has been done. For that reason I am writing to affirm my belief that in making room in your constitution for gay and lesbian Christians to be ordained as church leaders, you have accomplished an act of justice.

I realize that among your ecumenical partners, some voices are claiming that you have done the wrong thing, and I know that you rightly value your relationship with Christians in other parts of the world. Sadly, it is not always popular to do justice, but it is always right. People will say that the ones you are now willing to ordain are sinners. I have come to believe, through the reality shared with me by my scientist and medical friends, and confirmed to me by many who are gay, that being gay is not a choice. Like skin color or left-handedness, sexual orientation is just another feature of our diversity as a human family. How wonderful that God has made us with so much diversity, yet all in God’s image! Salvation means being called out of our narrow bonds into a broad place of welcome to all.

You are undoubtedly aware that in some countries the church has been complicit in the legal persecution of lesbians and gays. Individuals are being arrested and jailed simply because they are different in one respect from the majority. By making it possible for those in same-gender relationships to be ordained as pastors, preachers, elders, and deacons, you are being a witness to your ecumenical partners that you believe in the wideness of God’s merciful love. 

For freedom Christ has set us free. In Christ we are not bound by old, narrow prejudice, but free to embrace the full humanity of our brothers and sisters in all our glorious differences. May God bless you as you live into this reality, and may you know that there are many Christians in the world who continue to stand by your side.

God bless you.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (Cape Town, South Africa)

About the image: Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City (photo: Chris Hall/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Backing the Springboks
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This week, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series continued with "The 16th Man." This doc chronicles the role of rugby in helping unify blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s centered around Nelson Mandela’s risky “magnanimous gesture” to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and back the majority white South African Springboks, culminating with their improbable victory and its unifying symbolism for a nation starting a healing process.

It features interviews with players, including Afrikaner captain François Pienaar, alongside an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who doubted Mandela’s actions, and a few brief comments from Desmond Tutu that echo his belief in a “God of surprises.”

The film’s director quotes Mandela’s post-victory words: “Sport has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has … It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” Often sports documentaries seem to exaggerate this sentiment; in this case, the documenting feels very authentic, even without knowing how long the impact lasted for the people of South Africa.

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Forgiving His Daughter’s Murderer
Shubha Bala, associate producer

Hector BlackIn response to last week’s show, Hector Black pointed us to this StoryCorps interview. The listener from Tennessee tells the story of his daughter being murdered in her home and his process of seeking vengeance and granting forgiveness:

"I’d never been in favor of the death penalty, but, I wanted that man to hurt — the way that he had hurt her. I wanted him to hurt the way I was hurting. But after a while I wanted to know who it was…"

He narrates the events in detail — from the murder of his daughter to the process of wanting revenge, and ultimately to granting forgiveness. The heinousness of the crime makes me think of Desmond Tutu speaking about forgiveness during the South African truth and reconciliation process. He said you would think there are things that are unforgivable, like the horrendous violence of apartheid. And yet, he says, they saw many people who ought to have been bristling with bitterness and anger but actually embraced their perpetrators when they met face-to-face.

In some small way, it’s a good lesson reminding me that it should take much less mental work to forgive the person that steals your parking spot or cuts in front of you in line.

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Late Night with Tutu
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This enjoyable segment with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson won a Peabody Award today. Of this episode the selection committee said, “As this fascinating, often funny interview attests, the Scottish-born Ferguson has made late-night television safe again for ideas.”

I love how it highlights both Tutu’s moral passion and his delightful sense of humor. And, look for our show with Desmond Tutu in late April. Note: Ferguson’s interview is broken into three segments for YouTube. Watch the second and third parts below.

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu Is “Mad About Mango”

by Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Last week, we somewhat subversively teased fans of our Facebook page with this status update:

"Krista and a few of us producers are off again for a face-to-face interview with one of the world’s greatest men. We’re keeping it a bit of a secret in consideration of his privacy during his respite, but video and audio are sure to come!"

Within minutes, we received many guesses, and it was Kim Connolly who correctly identified the mystery guest: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We had the pleasure and honor of interviewing him while he was on retreat at the The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We kept it quiet until now to respect his privacy until his departure.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Krista Tippett and a Bowl of Dried MangosArchbishop Desmond Tutu holds his gift of dried mango while speaking with Krista Tippett. (photo: Trent Gilliss)

As we prepared for this interview, I asked his assistant if the Archbishop had any preferences we should be aware of when he does interviews. She kindly indicated that he’s very flexible and added, “Should you wish to spoil him a bit, he is mad about dried mango.”

Krista Tippett Presents Archbishop Desmond Tutu with a Bowl of Dried Mangos(photo: Colleen Scheck)

So, when Krista sat down across from him to start the interview, the Archbishop spied the bowl of dried mango (unsulphurized!) next to her and commented on it, which you can hear in the audio clip above.

That humorous exchange began a sincere, reflective, and playful conversation between Krista and Desmond Tutu that we look forward to producing and sharing for the podcast and radio at the end of April — along with video of the complete, unedited interview.

(Full disclosure: The Fetzer Institute is an underwriter of Speaking of Faith.)

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