May 13 2009 12:00 AM

Desmond Tutu’s visit to an East Lansing church the day before his MSU commencement speech.



The room in the basement of the All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing that received Archbishop Desmond Tutu last Thursday was outfitted as best it could for a man who has been compared to Mahatma Gandhi.

The tablecloths, in sea foam green and white, had a foliage pattern, and placed on top were pink geraniums. A spread of crust-free finger sandwiches, Saltine crackers, green and purple grapes, Brie cheese and lemon bars was on a table in the center of the room, and off in one corner was an empty glass punch bowl.

The room, including its drop ceiling and folding chairs, was decidedly church basement bazaar. But while awaiting Tutu, the sizeable crowd of practicing Episcopalians, clergy and churchgoing Michigan State University students mingled and chatted excitedly no matter their location. Tutu especially prizes the potential and vibrancy of younger people, according to Bishop Wendell Gibbs, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, who was on hand. “If there are too many adults around,” said Gibbs, who Tutu had dinner with Tutu last year in Ann Arbor, “he’ll push them aside and say that he wants to talk only to the children.”

Tutu’s arrival was slated for 10 a.m., but he was running a little late. Julie Powers, a congregant, was wrangling the whole affair, feverishly running around, receiving communiqués by cell phone about the archbishop’s whereabouts. Shortly before 10, Powers stood in the doorway of the room and announced Tutu would be arriving “at any moment.”

The room went silent and there was a collective snapping of necks as the 30 or so in attendance all turned their heads toward Powers.

In the back of the room, someone poured ice into that empty punch bowl.

When Tutu did finally arrive, he did so like an apparition. All of a sudden he was standing in the doorway, head to toe in casual black clerical garb, smiling and with his arms out as if ready to give a hug.

“Please forgive me for running late,” he said, smiling. Gibbs approached him first and the two embraced. Tutu then went around the room and shook everyone’s hand. (Upon reaching this reporter and a Channel 10 newscaster, he pointed his finger and in mock anger said, “You! You look like reporters!”)

The room belonged to Tutu, and everyone moved around him like he was some sort of reanimated ancient deity.

And for Episcopalians, it seems, he is. Before Tutu arrived, there was some discussion of whether one would have to kiss a ring or use a very formal designation in addressing him. But his “archbishop” (of Cape Town) title is in emeritus, and he appeared to prefer being called just Desmond, or perhaps Mr. Tutu.

Tutu’s renown is for his role in stopping apartheid, the brutal South African system of segregation, through non-violent activism and successful lobbying of private and governmental interests to divest of that country. But for a man who took on such an unfathomable challenge, and who won a Nobel Peace Prize for it, he was humble, friendly and quite funny — like when he joked that being referred to in the third-person usually only happens to people confined to wheelchairs. Or later, when a MSU student asked how to prepare oneself for receiving a Nobel Prize, Tutu said that you only need three things: a big nose (points to his own nose), an easy name (“Like ‘Tutu’”) and sexy legs.

Tutu declined an invitation to food, tea or coffee because he had already eaten breakfast (he stayed at the Kellogg Center) and took a seat in the center of three large tables that had been put together in the shape of a “U.” The MSU students sat around him with their plates of food as the adults stood around eager for a speech.

“I’m very, very thrilled to meet up with yourselves,” he began. “I’ve been upset with the media because of the whole way you tend to get portrayed. When one or two kids go awry, they get very widely publicized. Hardly anything is said about the incredible things young people are doing.”

After Tutu spoke, one student stood up and asked, “Will I be bogged down by work, or will there be a point where everything is fulfilling?”

“No!” Tutu said.

Another student, Harold, who said he had just finished his doctorate, asked what Tutu thinks about a potential schism in the church between congregations that allow gay ministers and those that are opposed to it. It took him a bit of time to get there, but Tutu said he thinks the hubbub is un-Christian.

“We have a Jesus Christ who consistently stands on the side of minorities who are clobbered,” Tutu said. “(To persecute people) goes contrary to all the principles.”

After answering the question, Tutu said a prayer, part in English and part in Xhosa, a South African language.

“Lord make us instruments of peace …” he began.

After the prayer, Tutu spent what seemed like an excruciatingly long time patiently posing for pictures with a humbled and grateful flock.