Last Sunday I attended a memorial service for Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As expected, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivered a rousing and passionate sermon. The choir and instrumentalists delivered an exquisite mix of solemn and celebratory music, including Bobby McFerrin’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm. And dignitaries delivered fitting and heartfelt tributes highlighting the Archbishop’s prophetic witness and palpable joy.
One such dignitary was Nomaindiya Cathleen Mfeketo, South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Mfeketo closed her remarks by saying we could honor Tutu’s memory through an ethic of ubuntu, which he embodied. Ubuntu is an African word that I first learned at Incarnation from a South African parishioner, Zinyusile (“Zi”). He told me it means, “I am because we are.” It refers to the power of our shared humanity rooted in kindness, compassion, hospitality and interconnectedness. We need others, and need to honor the value of others, in order to be truly human.
Ubuntu reminds me that there is no such thing as a lone Christian – except maybe for the occasional monastic hermit who truly lives an isolated existence and prays all day. But for the rest of us, we can’t be the body of Christ by ourselves. We can’t live out our calling to love our neighbors from afar.
At the turn of 2020, Zi gave me a bracelet with beads that spelled out “UBUNTU 20” as a little gift for the
new year. It’s somewhat ironic that we entered into lockdown less than three months later. Yet that bracelet
became a determined reminder that we must stay connected and affirming of one another no matter what. To quote Desmond Tutu, “We belong in a bundle of life…. A person is a person through other persons.”
If Tutu is right, then the kind of persons we are makes a difference to the kinds of persons others will become. In this regard, Tutu tells a story about what he considers to be one of the most formative experiences of his life:
“When I was a young child, I saw a white man tip his hat to a black woman. Please understand that in my
country such a gesture was completely unheard of. The white man was an Episcopal bishop; the black woman was my mother.”
What gives us dignity is not our independence, but rather our interdependence, our ability to participate and
share and live with open hearts. May our lives and our community be defined by ubuntu.