Archbishop Desmond Tutu once again set a stellar example for religious leaders and faith communities with his outspoken and unrelenting stand for justice and human dignity.
Hundreds of enthusiastic admirers gathered April 8 in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as the archbishop received the 2008 Outspoken Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He received the award with the same humor, humility and grace that have marked his long and remarkable career as Archbishop of South Africa in the midst of apartheid, the 1984 recipient of the Nobel Peace Price and chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His remarks, though brief, were poignant, perhaps especially for those in attendance who so rarely hear such a prominent religious leader speak clearly and passionately on behalf of LGBT people. He began by thanking us, and by extension LGBT people everywhere, for our courageous witness to human dignity in the face of both religious and civic oppression. This witness, he said, makes a profound difference to so many, and he cited just two of examples in the lives of openly gay clergy with whom he has closely worked over the years in Cape Town.
Even more moving, Archbishop Tutu also asked for our forgiveness on behalf of the church, which has so often made us, he said, a “lesser part” of God’s creation. He compared this sin to the long tradition of excluding women from ordained ministry. We now see, he said, how such exclusion “impoverished” the church and its work for far too long.
This pairing of gratitude and repentance set the tone for the evening’s celebration as Tutu deflected the attention away from himself and toward the ongoing struggles for human rights and dignity throughout the world. He likened himself to the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who could no more stop speaking truth to power than he could stop breathing. Like Jeremiah, he said, God’s word of justice has always “burned within my breast,” from the scourge of racism to the exclusion of women and the persecution of LGBT people.
The archbishop concluded his remarks by referring to his own Anglican Communion and noting how “sad” and how “tragic” it is to see his church distracted by human sexuality at a time when a world marked by poverty and war demands our full attention. Reminding us that the Olympic torch would arrive in San Francisco the very next day, he deftly connected our struggle for justice and dignity to the work of freedom in Tibet.
As an Episcopal priest, I took great pride in this moment of honoring one of my own faith leaders. Even more, the Archbishop’s humble courage made me long for that day when such courage and leadership no longer seems rare or worthy of an elaborate award ceremony. The work of justice and witnessing to the full dignity of every human being belongs to all of us. As Archbishop Tutu’s life and ministry so clearly shows, that work is what religion and faith are all about.
The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Religious Leadership Roundtable, is an Episcopal priest and the programming and development director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.