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Remembering Tutu’s Transformative Vision: A Conversation with Rev. David Mesenbring

The passing two months ago of South African Nobel Peace Prize winner and social justice advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu prompted many to reflect on his legacy. One member of the Oikocredit community who knew Tutu well is the Rev. David Mesenbring. David’s career includes work both inside South Africa and as an anti-apartheid activist in the US. Oikocredit US’ CEO Matt Eldridge recently spoke with David about how he’ll remember “The Arch,” as Tutu was known.

MATT: When did you first meet Archbishop Tutu?

DAVID: By correspondence. In the fall of 1974, I was writing to everyone I could get an address for, hoping to teach in an African seminary as field research in between earning a master’s degree and a doctorate. A professor in Nigeria said this will be tough but there’s one guy based in England who works with seminaries all over Africa. That “guy” was Desmond Tutu. He recommended South Africa. I hesitated because I worried apartheid might compromise my research, but Tutu said “You *need* to go to South Africa.” By summer ‘75, he had connected me to an offer from a South African seminary.

Why did you decide to work in a country you’d initially tried to avoid?

Because it dawned on me that in all my anti-Vietnam War activism, I’d never met any Vietnamese people, and knew nothing of their history, language or culture. When I got the seminary offer, I realized that South Africa was likely to become another US foreign policy challenge, and my lessons about Vietnam had been learned too late. Maybe I should learn something about South African people, languages and cultures. A prominent anti-Apartheid activist said when you come home, your perspective will only be as valid as the number of corners you touch there. I had no idea how profound that advice was.

You campaigned to divest from apartheid South Africa, including a CNN debate broadcast the morning Congress voted for sanctions. What was Tutu’s role in the divestment movement? Why did he invest so much time in it, so far away from home?

I was filling in at the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility when CNN wanted someone to debate against the Heritage Foundation the day the Senate was voting to override Reagan’s veto of Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Tutu’s role in this movement was huge. He personally persuaded Republican Senators to vote for that sanctions bill. Tutu traveled this country and was the #1 public advocate for sanctions. He truly believed the best way to force Pretoria to change was economic pressure. It wasn’t easy for a Republican Senate to override a Republican President. Tutu gets credit for this, as a nonviolent strategy to affect change.

Tutu was so fiercely committed to principles of peace and justice, he sometimes made people of privilege squirm. Yet he proved immensely popular with all kinds of US audiences. How did he manage this?

Tutu had a very good sense of humor. He would start with a series of jokes and anecdotes to relax audiences before throwing the big punch. Tutu would say, “When you whites arrived, you came with the Bible. We had all the land and all the gold. You told us to kneel down, close our eyes and pray. And when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and you had all the land and all the gold!” From there, he could criticize us for having the largest military budget in the world. And thanks to his approach, we’d listen.

What is your favorite memory of Tutu?

In 2007, I was at a church conference where Tutu was the keynote speaker. Before his speech, I looked for the restroom but accidentally stumbled into a meeting of the head of the church with Desmond and the Bishop of Massachusetts. Tutu said, “Oh, David, come in.” He introduced me as “the young American who came to our country at a very difficult time, and used to chide people like me for being too conservative.” Everyone laughed except me, though I smiled inside. To me, Tutu was admitting he’d ignored some things I’d tried to warn him about, and regretted it. I took this comment as a stupendously graceful moment of reconciliation.

What do you hope Tutu's legacy will be for people who work toward Oikocredit's vision of a more just world?

Desmond was first and foremost an African. He traveled the world but really knew the continent. We now live in a time when South Africa is trying to find its new relationship with the continent. Oikocredit has always been ahead of other international development efforts and lenders, especially in Africa. South Africa has unfulfilled potential for integrating itself with the rest of the continent. I hope that Desmond’s commitment to the continent will inspire Oikocredit to re-engage with South Africa in partnership, to use some of South Africa’s skills and infrastructure to decentralize Oikocredit’s Africa work and empower the continent.

The Rev. David Mesenbring served on Oikocredit International’s Nomination Committee and the board of Oikocredit USA which preceded our organization, Oikocredit US. He also co-founded Oikocredit Northwest which later became Oikocredit US. For more of David’s reflections on the late Archbishop Tutu, please check out his recent article in The Christian Century about the late Archbishop:

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