On December 26, the world lost beloved South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu. An outspoken defender of human rights and campaigner for justice for the oppressed, Archbishop Tutu was a prophetic voice in our world today revered for his commitment to fighting poverty, racism, and all forms of discrimination against any human beings, and his dedication to reshaping our conversations about peace, equality, and forgiveness. He left his early career as a teacher to protest the 1953 Bantu Education Act that segregated South Africa’s schools. He then followed the calling to the priesthood, and ultimately became a moral leader adored and respected around the world who fought first for the end of South African apartheid and then for the truth-telling and reconciliation his nation required in order to move forward.
As a joyful, holy man who spent his whole life in solidarity with marginalized people, Archbishop Tutu was always a champion for children. Several years ago he sent a special video address to attendees at the Children’s Defense Fund’s annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry, where his daughter, Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, has been a valued workshop leader. In this message to faithful child advocates he shared a timeless exhortation for pursuing justice: “Justice needs champions. Good leaders with the ability to identify the challenges and the tenacity to address them. Good leaders driven not by personal ambition, but by an innate desire to improve the circumstances of the human family and the human condition.”
He continued: “We inhabit a moral universe. Goodness, righteousness, and fairness matter. We are born to love—all of us, including black, Latino, and white [children] and everyone else. As members of the human family—God’s family—we were created with equal, infinite worth for interdependence. In conditions of harmony, equity, and common purpose, the whole family thrives. God does not use strong-armed tactics to ensure justice is done. God empowers us to do the right thing. It is up to us—you, and you, and you, and me.”
Archbishop Tutu then shared what he believed is God’s dream for all human children: “And God says, I have a dream. I have a dream that all of my children will discover that they belong in one family—my family, the human family; a family in which there are no outsiders; all are held in the embrace of the one whose love will never let us go; the one who says that each one of us is of incredible worth, that each one of us is precious to God because each of us has their name written on the palms of God’s hands. And God says, there are no outsiders—black, white, red, yellow, short, tall, young, old, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, straight—everyone. All belong. And God says, I have only you to help me realize my dream. Help me.”
I hope we can realize this dream for all humankind. I believe we can realize God’s and Archbishop Tutu’s dream if each of us holds ourselves accountable and understands that it is up to us to do whatever is necessary to pass on to our children and grandchildren a better and more just country and world than we inherited. Here at home we can move America closer to being that family and nation where everyone belongs and everyone has worth. But to do so, we must wake up, open our eyes and ears, avoid convenient ignorance, seek the truth, speak up, stand up, and never give up fighting for justice for all.
We can do this, even in this very difficult moment, if a critical remnant among us is determined to commit ourselves to being the good leaders and champions for justice that poor children, children of color, and all children need. We can honor Archbishop Tutu now by following his holy example and using our own hands to help.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund