The 7th of October 2010 – an ordinary day
This day is and will always be a very particular day for me, it is the Birgitta (Bridget) day in Sweden and the very name and its pronunciation have a particular beauty, a rich name full of warmth; furthermore, Birgitta is one of the few saints we have in Sweden (partly because we reformed ourselves away from Roman Catholicism and did not talk in those terms any longer) having lived in the 14th century. She was amazing, and in my opinion the by far most important woman that ever lived in our country, she was a reformer of sorts, but with other förtecken than the Reformation era two hundred years later, and did take on the pope as well as the Swedish king and others in other lands, without fear or favour. She is today saint Birgitta to many of us Swedes and thanks to pope John Paul II she is today also the patron saint of Europe. Thoughts of this kind always come into my mind on 7 October.
It was one of those days: full of human engagement and meaning – extraordinary – in the ordinary sense. What I am saying is not just a play on words; living here, being engaged in church, university, common society, in a city like Cape Town is tapping your energy but also energizing and incredibly rewarding and gratifying. Many ordinary days have turned out to be quite extra ordinary.
7h00 sharp I was at the St George’s Cathedral in down town Cape Town. For many years now I have taken the early morning Eucharist at 7h15. We were about a dozen people, most of whom I know. There is this startling thing, making this occasion come very far from any kind of sheer routine, that this Eucharist must be allowed to set the tone for the rest of the day. A new cosmos is created and the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ will be the pattern to follow. The power and inspiration are there but also the willingness to serve and challenge, come what may.
At the coffee afterwards I was asked by a friend from the Dutch Reformed Church who had come over, whether I was willing to take part in a discussion about an inclusive church and same sex relationships. Nothing further was decided. Well back home I had to prepare for some meetings at UWC and this time of the year there is a lot to do with the students whom I supervise. This time of the year is a wake up call as the term is nearing the end. But I also had to produce two letters, quite different in kind. One was to the regional head of property services in the City of Cape Town, Eastern Region. We had managed to set up a meeting at the city council for the sake of our congregation in Eerste River. The second letter was to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, asking him to hold his own Desmond Tutu Lecture at the university seeing that he also is going to retire from his position as Chancellor of our university. Ideally this occasion, which if it takes place will be a real highlight to all of us, will take place together with the induction of the new professor to occupy the Desmond Tutu Chair in Ecumenical Theology and Social Transformation in Africa.
I was able to finalize both letters in time for the meeting in Kuilsriver, which could be said to be the eastern part of the city, half way to Stellenbosch. In good African fashion, one would have to say, the congregational council of Eerste River had insisted that most of the members should be present at the meeting. With my colleague, also a non-stipendiary pastor, Revd Patrick Godana, we were six people entering the small office of Ms Schnackenberg. The discussion was about how we could acquire a plot of ground for the church in Eerste River, where congregants have been waiting for such a development for more than 20 years and there are at the moment between 200 – 300 people associated with our Lutheran church; thus far, worship is taking place in a class room in a primary school in the area, not an ideal place of worship, but still. The meeting went well, I made sure that all got a chance to speak and Ms Schnackenberg will now help us to get into the tender process, which is an open process and there are no guarantees that you will get a particular plot; however, we now stand a chance to have something on hand within perhaps six months. It would be great. A strong kind of togetherness was there and when we had left the office and the meeting we made a pause in one of the corridors just on the way out and said a prayer together. Sister Mary was asked to pray, and she did with a burning zeal.
It was then time for me to steer towards the university campus to a meeting with my PhD student and we had quite an animated discussion about the two world movements in the Christian world: World Council of Churches and the Lausanne Movement, the first one the most representative ecumenical movement in existence in the world, the second a more evangelical movement, the beginnings at which the well known evangelist Billy Graham played a highly instrumental role. Tentatively the thesis will be about the perception of mission and social transformation in the two movements, a very relevant and vital approach I think. In the supervision of students it is of vital importance to see the fine line between giving ideas and some direction on the one hand and allowing the student to develop and take own initiatives on the other. But more often than not, such sessions are highly creative and I tend to thrive at the moment.
Time allows me to get back home and change for the evening. We are going to a ship named ‘Explorer’ that has docked in the Cape Town harbour. But the reason for going there is rather special. The ship is a kind of university on sea (part of the University of Virginia in the US) with I think more than 500 students on board of all kinds of nationalities, but most importantly the scholar in residence at this time is Archbishop Desmond Tutu and today it is his 79th birthday; in other words, another party on its way. But this is a very special party. First of all it is also his wife’s Leah’s party as she has her birthday soon after, but also because Father Desmond has said, and this time many seem to believe him, that he is going to retire for real.
So there we were, lining up on the berth awaiting our turn, security was tight, we even had to have our passports with us. There might have been about 3-400 guests, I am not sure, but it was indeed a cocktail party of note. There is a sense of joy and celebration with Desmond Tutu that is contagious. It has more to do with the coming together of people as such; being with others is seemingly always a joy to him, and some of us have rightly asked, how is this possible? Are you never tired of seeing people? Perhaps is a secret here lurking behind the scene: people are energizing him and are therefore a must and therefore we do not yet understand how it will be possible for him to retire. I can only pray that he will get some prime time with his dear wife Leah and their family in South Africa and the US.
Here we were and there were not many speeches, and those who came were not adding much to what everybody already knew. Here was a man that up till now has played a decisive role in the church and the world, who has created hope where there was no hope, who has had the guts to speak out when nobody else was willing to. Perhaps no one else has so effectively and well made use of the Nobel Peace Award as he has. So there was this enormous sense of pride in all who took part in this party and this sense of celebration. What did we celebrate? Not just Desmond Mpilo Tutu, but also ourselves, we celebrated that we also are human beings that are loved by God.
So there they were. Tutu had spoken, the microphone did not work and most people did not hear what he said; just as well, I stood nearby and I just heard him thanking each and everyone once and again for coming over and over again, and nobody was actually able to thank him and probably did not know how that should be done (I certainly did not have words for that if I had thought about it). This is so typical, he is so unassuming, and yet sharp. A critical moment developed towards the end of the party. Tutu was conversing with an elderly Anglican priest who had had Tutu as teacher at the Theological Seminary in Alice. They spoke Xhosa most of the time, and I could not figure out what was happening, but they became deeper and deeper involved in this conversation, two others were also part of it. But soon enough I realized that he had, in a mock action, ‘consecrated’ the now retired priest as ‘assistant archbishop’. The funny thing was that the current archbishop of the Anglicans was there, somewhere at the party, Thabo Magoba, as well as half a dozen other bishops; at one point, Tutu called a few of the other bishops to come forward to him so that he could consecrate also them to ‘assistant archbishops’, but the whole mock exercise abated before many people took notice. Great fun, and those who are involved in that which is sacred, especially those who are ordained, should well afford to be taken less seriously once in a while.
Thank you Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a life that we all enjoy, for making life a celebration wherever you move and even if you are in retirement, please throw a word or two for us also, every now and again, they can still make a difference.