My Tea With Tutu

10/07/2010 07:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Cameron Sinclair Co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and the Open Architecture Network

Many, many moons ago, long before I decided to dedicate my life to humanitarian work I got through life thanks to a couple of talents. One of them was singing. A skill and a change meeting that led me, then ten years old, to unknowingly have tea with Tutu. A moment that may have had subconsciously changed the course of my life. His announcement to retire today reminded me of that chance meeting.

In the early 80s my family had moved to the United States armed with green cards and a dream of a better life. Coming from South London, that wasn't hard. I was good at two things -- drawing and singing. Thankfully, the former paid off in the long run. My parents, trying to adjust me to life in the States, put me in a choir where I sang weekly. As a ten year old I slowly made my way to the front of the singers and ended up singing solo.


One day a man came to speak to our church, and for the first time in months I was wide awake and focused during the sermon. Coming from Europe I hungered for international news. Here was this man, small in stature yet larger than life, pushing a moral sense of urgency about injustice and equality. He opened up, first quietly, then with restrained passion, then with conviction I had never seen before. "If you see something, say something" was his refrain again, again and again. I didn't hear a passage, a gospel, nothing. This was a moral compass pointing to an issue happening at this very moment. He let rip about issues I'd only read about -- injustice, suffering and the need of immediate solutions. This was global, this was a collective, we are all part of these issues. I looked around to see people relaxed, listening as if the nightly news were on but for me, this scrawny kid with a funny accent, THIS was the most important thing I'd ever heard from an adult.

The service ended and people shuffled out the back. I, with a sweet tooth, made a b-line for the post-service coffee and biscuits. To my amazement I saw him sitting alone, quietly tucking into homemade cookies. Thinking to myself "if you see something, say something," I went up to him and started talking, telling him I was from the UK, had missed what was really happening and started firing rapid fire questions like a pint-sized Bob Woodward in the basement of a DC car park. "Why?" I kept asking. Before I knew it he leaned down slowly and rested his hand on my shoulder and he said, "My child, it is because we are all one family."

A few weeks after this tiny and small moment in my life, I was still thinking about him. This man left alone after giving the most powerful speech I'd ever heard. What was wrong with my town, what was wrong with the people that attended my church. Was their something wrong with me? Wack. The New York Times hits the breakfast table. It's him, the guy. He's on the cover. I'm met him, he put his hand on me and told me we were a family. The headline proclaimed "Tutu wins Nobel Prize." Wow I thought, he must have known what he was talking about, and for years he was left dormant in my memory. As I went from one episode to the next in my journey of life I was left with a reminder, "if you see something, say something."


Last year I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The group I am a part of, the Young Global Leaders, was holding an event on dignity with Desmond Tutu. After the event we met again very briefly. I didn't tell him the story. I didn't introduce myself. I, now taller, put my hand on his shoulder, bent down and said thank you.

This is just my personal story -- take it for what it is. However, in a time of great need, more than ever if you see something, just say something. Happy retirement Archbishop Tutu, you've touched a lot of lives without even knowing it.