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Tribute to Desmond Tutu from Bishop Bill Swing of United Religions Initiative


All of the bishops of the Anglican Communion gather every ten years at the University of Canterbury, England. At the 1988 meeting, the officials of the event wanted to make sure that all bishops were accounted for. So in a large group, we were supposed to shout out our last name and the number of the place we were residing. When it came to Desmond, he shouted "Tutu, 2222." That was actually where he was staying. I thought: "remarkable alignment!" Before then and after then, I have often thought of him in terms of "remarkable alignment."

Earlier when he was traveling the world promoting "South African Free" investment portfolios, he came to San Francisco, and we hosted him at Grace Cathedral. Soon after, he had numerous speaking invitations around California, and he asked me to travel with him and arrange for the speaking engagements. This led me eventually to Cape Town in 1986 and an invitation to his enthronement as the Archbishop of Cape Town and Primate of South Africa.

For me, the one thing that set him apart over the years, whether in little chapels, grand cathedrals or regular sized churches, was how early he arrived to say his prayers. Yes, he was theologically learned, yes he was a first rate man of humor and story telling, yes, he would fearlessly take on the most explosive moral issues of the moment, but underneath it all, he was a man of prayer. Deep and abiding prayer! And I have always thought that this was the key to his "remarkable alignment."

He backed the United Religions Initiative (URI) before there was a United Religions Initiative. Once after traveling back and forth, twice, from Cape Town to Taiwan, upon returning home, he turned around to fly to San Francisco to work at URI's founding Youth Conference. What made his journey more sacrificial was that South Africa was in the World Cup Championship, and he wanted to be home to celebrate. I had to promise to get an Irish pub owner to open up at 5:00 a.m., so that Desmond could sit at the bar, drink coffee and cheer." (South Africa won.)

I sent him a love letter this year to tell him about URI's success, and to thank him for heroically adding his gravitas to our beginning. Alas, he was not at his home address, so the letter came back. He was dying.

Desmond's faith boiled down to two things: the undaunted courage to embrace this world's suffering and injustice and the unwavering confidence in a light shining in the darkness promising a new day. He was faithful to both right to the end. 

They were in "remarkable alignment" in his great life.

- William E. Swing

Bishop William Swing is the Founder and President Emeritus of URI; and Former Episcopal Bishop of California. Visit to learn more about their crucial work in the Interfaith movement. URI is an official partner of the Charter for Compassion.

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Tuesday, 30 May 2023
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