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Desmond Tutu, Insisting We Are 'Made For Goodness'

Our occasional series with people of broad experience turns this week to a man characterized by his faith — and his willingness to fight.

In the era of apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu railed against the injustice and inhumanity of South Africa's government, and his passionate advocacy helped make the change that came to that country in the 1990s.

Now 78, in a magenta habit with a crucifix around his neck, he is the picture of a holy man. But looking back on his boyhood in one of South Africa's black townships, Tutu remembers an urchin with a fondness for marbles and comic books. And even in church, "we had fun," the archbishop tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

The memories linger even now. There's joy in Tutu's voice as he recalls a song he sang as a child: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" the verse asked.

"It was a fantastic thing to have much, much later," Tutu says — "to remember, 'Yes, if God be for us in our struggle against injustice and oppression, who can be against us?' "

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Tutu's early role models was an Anglican priest — a black South African who "was treated like a big chief when he arrived" on the rural farms where he served in mission churches. And yet he was "an incredible human being ... who had this degree of caring for lesser mortals. And who knows, I was probably seeking to emulate him."

'I Don't Think I've Ever Felt That Same Kind Of Peace'

Despite that priest's influence and his own eventual calling to the clergy, Tutu's first intentions about a career lay in another direction — possibly, he says, because a bout with tuberculosis as a teenager made a vivid impression. He spent months in a hospital, and came face to face with the prospect of his own death.

"I'd observed in the ward that almost all of the patients who coughed up blood ended up going to the — you call it a morgue, we call it a mortuary," Tutu recalls. "And one day, this thing happened to me: I coughed, and the blood just came gushing out of my mouth. ... I still can't believe that that happened to me, but I sat there, and I said to God, 'Well, if it means I'm going to die, that's OK.' I don't think I've ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB."

After that, medicine — "my first love," Tutu confesses — was more alluring than ever.

"Especially after getting TB, I was determined to find a cure," he says. "I was admitted to medical school, but my parents didn't have the money to pay the fees."

God was always calling, too — an experience Tutu compares to that of one of his favorite Old Testament prophets.

"Jeremiah also was saying he didn't want to become a prophet," Tutu recalls, "and said to God, 'If I say I don't want to speak on your behalf, your Word is like a fire in my breast.' I can't hold it back — and sometimes when people asked why I was going on in the fashion I was despite the reaction of the government and all of their nastinesses, I said, 'Well, although we claim that we have free will, in some ways God just grabs us by the scruff of the neck."

'A Fire In Winter'

As chair of his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu listened to accounts of political hatred and physical brutality that might shake anyone's faith in humanity.

"Perhaps if one had listened only to the atrocities," he demurs. "But we were constantly being bowled over by the extent to which people were ready and willing to forgive. But we had, obviously, the spectacular example of Nelson Mandela, who could come out of 27 years' incarceration, so eager to be able to forgive."

A decade and more after that faith-building experience, Tutu says his sense of his relationship to the divine is still evolving.

"I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God," he says, laughing. One model of prayer, he acknowledges, is that "you have a kind of shopping list that you bring to God" — and even Desmond Tutu confesses that "I still do."

But more and more for him, he says, communion with God is about "trying to grow, in just being there."

"Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire," he says. "You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you."

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