Desmond Tutu avoids politics while talking about peace

Desmond Tutu speaks
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks to a standing room only crowd in Minneapolis. Tutu delivered a message calling for peace while avoiding comment on controversial political issues.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Archbishop Tutu took the stage to a standing ovation in the packed auditorium and opened with a joke.

"As you can see, I'm not exactly young. One of the benefits of not being young is that you are permitted to repeat yourself, and so if you have heard this story before, be nice to an old decrepit man and laugh."

Wearing a brilliant magenta robe and matching skullcap, the 78-year-old religious leader used humor to convey a message of peace and hope.

The elder statesman largely avoided talking about politics. During the question and answer session following the speech, he was asked about the ongoing conflict in Zimbabwe. Tutu called the situation "nightmarish." He urged other African leaders to pressure President Robert Mugabe to step down.

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Desmond Tutu speaks
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center Auditorium, as part of the National Youth Leadership Council conference.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

But when moderator Kerri Miller, host of Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning program, pressed for his views on President George Bush's legacy, Tutu was practically speechless.

"You really want to know?," Tutu asked

"I do," Miller said.

"Let me tell you. I'm not, yes, well. I was going to name drop. Well, let me. I lunched with Mrs. Bush. She's quite something else," Tutu said.

Facing a crowd of young people and families, Tutu avoided talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead he praised the Bush administration's work in Burma. He said Bush's legacy in the world would center largely on Laura Bush's efforts for democracy in that country.

Tutu told the crowd that, despite ongoing problems of poverty and racism, it's also important to remember what makes the United States a great country. He pointed to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as examples of how much things have changed.

"There are many, many good things about you," Tutu told the crowd. "To have a woman, she is a worthy candidate in her own right. And Obama, that he should seem to have energized so many young people to be involved in politics in a way that hasn't happened before. So, I mean, it is a tremendous, tremendous feather in the cap of your country."

Tutu left the stage to another standing ovation.

Tutu did not bring up the controversy that surrounded his visit to the Twin Cities. He'd originally been scheduled to speak at the University of St. Thomas. The school withdrew the invitation out of concern that his past criticism of Israeli policy might offend Jews. The school later issued an apology and re-invited Tutu.

In the controversy, Professor Cris Toffolo lost her position as head of the university's Justice and Peace Studies program.

Toffolo was in the crowd for Tutu's speech. In the spirit of his remarks, she said she's happy that Metro-State University was able to host the event.

"The thing with Tutu is you know he's faced the dogs and the bullets and he was there when it really counted," Toffolo said. "In the harshest and darkest days, and he didn't give up then. He lived through it, so that energy, we trust it because it's tested. He stood up, dealt with injustices. It's not cheap or easy grace, it's really in the street stuff. So that's what makes him so real and so powerful."

Archbishop Tutu speaks Saturday at the North Community High School in North Minneapolis and was scheduled to visit Red Wing Correctional Facility.