Desmond Tutu on Shelter Island: A Memory of Friendship and Joy

It’s a story about the blessings that come from friendship and place. And, now, it’s also a story of loss and memory.

It starts in the mid-1980s, when Lynn Franklin and I ran aground on Shelter Island a year apart. I met Lynn when she came to my house for dinner in early 1985 as a guest of a friend of a friend. There began the story we told for the next 36 years – how Lynn, daring, adventurous, scout and international literary book agent and world traveler, crushed my party. It was then that the friendship began that survived Lynn, who passed away last summer.

And that foreshadowed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s appearance on Shelter Island for about a decade. The friend of a friend who brought Lynn to my house in 1985 was Karen Bertrand, an artist who then lived on Baldwin Road with her writer husband, Willy Wilson, two houses away from Lynn.

Karen and Willy have since returned permanently to St. Thomas, where Willy grew up. Karen’s brother had somehow learned that South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was looking for a literary agent.

A few years later, I’m sitting on Lynn’s Bridge with the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Ark, as we called him. I had been invited to join him and his wife, Leah, in prayer. I couldn’t sleep the day before.

What would it be to be in the presence of such a great man, a personal hero for his anti-apartheid work, which won him the Nobel Prize, and his heroic leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the terrible wounds of the apartheid era and South Africa’s transition to free democracy?

What would it be for me, a Jew, who grew up in a religious family, to participate in a Christian holiday? Oy vey.

Well this tall man appeared in shorts and a Shelter Island T-shirt to greet me with a big smile and infectious laugh. He assigned readings for family service. Mine was from the New Testament. But then Leah, a beautiful and warm woman in a colorful African dress, leaned over and gently suggested that I read the Old Testament. I loved her for it and told her that my name too was Leah, the traditional Hebrew name I received at birth.

It was the first of many visits from the Ark to Lynn’s home over the years. And I went to more family meals when her kids visited too, and eventually her grandchildren, and more prayer and a lot of humanity.

I have started to appreciate more and more over the past few years the slow, constant opening of my mind that has come to me through Lynn’s great little-known friends of many faiths. A longtime friend of his, Ramu Damodoran, an Indian Hindu who worked at the United Nations, told me that he recited the prayers and sang the hymns of other faiths to share a common spirit and humanity.

So when I joined Lynn and the Tutus for a Family Eucharist, I marveled at its remarkable similarity to the Jewish Kiddush – wine and bread!

And when the Ark another time asked me to read the New Testament (Leah was not present that time), I made my own dramatic interpretation. Archbishop Tutu embraced the African philosophy of Ubuntu, preaching its ideas of human dignity and interdependence. The idea is summed up in the title of his book, “God is not a Christian: and other provocations”. (While we’re on the subject of books, read “Everyday Ubuntu,” by her granddaughter Mungi Ngomane.)

In the late 1990s, l’Arche was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which he has been treated in the United States on several occasions over the years. He often recuperated at Lynn’s or Eleanor Oakley’s if Lynn was away. He was giving nicknames and Eleanor said he called her “That Crazy Girl”.

A worker for human rights around the world, Eleanor has formed a special bond with L’Arche. Separately and together, Eleanor and Lynn and Lynn’s family have visited her on several occasions in South Africa, Johannesburg and Soweto.

Kathy Lynch met the Ark on Eleanor’s Bridge in Gardiner’s Creek and joined the others in prayer. “I will never forget this beautiful day,” Kathy told me. “He shook my hand and put his other hand on my forearm – such a connection. His peaceful energy came over me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man.

Truly holy people don’t have to play the part. Once, while L’Arche was recovering from a medical procedure at Lynn’s, I delivered a mix of classical music at Lynn’s request. I had spent hours copying CDs to audio tape.

The next time I visited him, he stormed down in his usual shorts and Shelter Island t-shirt, returning all the tapes to me except the ones that featured Beethoven’s piano music, chuckling conspiratorially. ‘he could survive forever with the spirit of Beethoven.

Lynn and Desmond Tutu were close throughout their remaining years. I was often at Lynn’s when she answered her cell phone, which kept ringing and said, “This is the Ark. They were in frequent contact throughout his last illness.

They both cared deeply about truth and justice, said Lynn’s sister Laurie Callahan. But they could also laugh and be silly. His laughter was such a delight.

And they could be honest with each other. Lynn could tell him anything, and he could tell her. Witness this exchange, reported by British journalist Gary Younge in the Guardian in 2009: “They call him Father, but as he sits at the breakfast table eating Cheerios with fruit and yogurt , laughing as he teases and is in turn teased, Bishop Desmond Tutu looks more like a mischievous little boy. “Are you going to wear this shirt?” »Asks Lynn Franklin, his literary agent and friend, with whom he stays on Shelter Island… Tutu widens his eyes and opens his mouth with false indignation. “What’s wrong with that shirt?” He said looking at his dark blue T-shirt. “What about the one I ironed for you?” Franklin said. “But this one has the World Cup logo,” Tutu said, pointing to the small emblem on his chest. ”

Announcing his death on December 26, Reuters released a recent photo of Desmond Tutu in South Africa wearing his Shelter Island t-shirt. The great man, the holy man, was one of us, locally and universally. An Ubuntu message states that we are all in the same boat. If only we could take that wisdom into account right now.

Rest in peace, Lynn Franklin and Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Tutu Shelter Island with his friend and literary agent Lynn Franklin. (Courtesy photo)


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Steven L. Nielsen