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Mary Wald Headshot

Archbishop Tutu: Bravo, Your Excellency

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On July 22, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was on BBC.com announcing that he has retired from public life. "The time has now come to slow down," he said. "To sip Rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses."

There was an audible gasp across the NGO world. For anyone who has worked on peace or human rights, or social justice, or Africa, or poverty, it was a moment that I think we had all felt coming, but one that none of us expected to actually ever arrive.

Over the last months the Archbishop has been an advisor on TheCommunity.com's upcoming human rights campaign. In March we taped a video with him for the campaign, to be released in fall.

I am only one of many -- hundreds at least, in just the last few years, if not into the thousands -- who have asked him to take the time to talk to a video camera, keynote a conference, write a letter, lend his weight to a cause, inspire a group.

He has often squeezed in time for me between engagements while traveling. Fifteen minutes here to tape a video message on the Bushmen in Botswana being kicked out of their homelands. Twenty minutes there to meet someone. Often lending his name, and sometimes his pen, to letters on issues that were important to all of us, most recently the new Arizona immigration law. He has sometimes connected one of us to another.

Last year, he spent more than an hour talking to me on camera about working for peace - the need for persistence, the nature of the universe, the role of human rights. I have only put bits of it online as it is long for a web video. But that tape that is one of our treasures, one that deserves, and will get, more.

Of course these moments are incredible. Every time. But what is even more incredible is that I am just one of so many he has said yes to. Yes when he didn't really have the time. Yes when he should be been resting. Stories abound in the world of peace and human rights, of otherwise ordinary people getting an answer, often positive, from Desmond Tutu typing on his personal blackberry.

Because we are all that important to him. And the message is that important.

Yesterday's press conference was foreshadowed last October, when we had a taping scheduled with him, with Morgan Freeman, for the human rights campaign. He was scheduled to be in Los Angeles for a dinner for Artists for a New South Africa in the evening, tape with us the next morning, go who knows where that afternoon, and fly to Vancouver for an interfaith conference with the Dalai Lama.

While still in Capetown, he injured his back, and the whole trip was canceled. Tellingly, his assistant told me it was his doctor who had had to put his foot down. From bed, unable to walk, badly injured, he was still talking about trying to make it to Vancouver so he didn't let his friend the Dalai Lama down.

I saw him in March of this year, in an "undisclosed location." Undisclosed because it was supposed to be a private retreat with his family. He took time away from the retreat to tape a video for our upcoming human rights campaign. And then to speak with Krista Tippett from NPR.

This time, as he had the time before, he spoke of feeling old and decrepit. I heard him but it didn't really sink in. I was looking at him, thinking, this is probably the least "decrepit" 78 year old person I have met in my life. If I can laugh and dance as he does in my 70s, I will be so incredibly grateful.

It was just too hard to believe him. The power and enthusiasm of the man's spirit is so overpoweringly fresh, it is hard to even notice that the body is 79 years old.

Then yesterday I saw him at the press conference, talking about retiring. Talking about drinking tea with his wife, watching cricket, playing with his grandchildren. And I thought, yeah. We really haven't been listening.

Let's face it, we have all been just a little bit too much in love to want to believe him, to hold ourselves back from asking for just a few more words to brighten our day, our week, our lives. He's tired. And we're not willing to see it.

He had to make the decision for us. If he had waited for us to stop asking, he never would, really, get that family retreat.

Our way of saying thank you, for adding so much to our lives and our work, is going to be to let go. It's going to be to stop asking this man to be so much of a hero, and let his family ask him to be a husband, a father and a grandfather. They have no doubt bitten their tongues many many times to stop from complaining when he has flown off for a conference or a lecture when they had hoped he would be there for a birthday party.

It's their time now.

He has, after all, told us what we need to hear often enough -- in lectures, in books, in media interviews. Next time we feel like we need to have him at an event to inspire our audience, maybe now we should sit down and read him again, listen to him again, and find ways to carry his message of justice, compassion and forgiveness forward to our audiences ourselves.

He and Mandela started the avalanche that blew the injustice of apartheid apart. Then they didn't rest. They refused to rest. And they deserve to rest. And while I can't say I will never again send him something asking for a signature, and I certainly hope that there will be another moment with him, even if it is just for a cup of Rooibios tea, I believe that we -- all of us who have had the good fortune to have a picture of ourselves with our hero on our mantle -- can keep this going now ourselves. We can show our gratitude by giving the man the chance to watch some cricket with a grandchild asleep in his lap, while we work now.

Archbishop, thank you. And now that we've all had a moment to catch our breath, I am sure I am only one of hundreds of thousands who want to rise from their chairs tonight and give you a standing ovation. Our deepest gratitude, always.