Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought his message of social justice and equality to Gonzaga University’s graduation ceremony Sunday, urging students to dream dreams that could change the world.
Tutu, a central figure in South Africa’s fight against apartheid, has scaled back public appearances in recent years, but said he accepted Gonzaga’s invitation because he remains inspired by the idealism of the young.
“I have to tell you, I can’t resist young people,” said the 80-year-old Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner and retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. “They are some of the most incredible creatures in God’s creation.”
Student activism during the 1980s helped pressure the United States to divest in South Africa, which eventually toppled the racist government and led to democratic elections.
Throughout history God has called the young to action, said Tutu, naming Biblical characters who had starring roles in their teens: David, who slew the giant Goliath; Jeremiah, a prophet; and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“God says to you: Please dream,” Tutu told the graduates during the commencement address. “Dream of a world where poverty is no more … dream of a world where everyone has a decent life.”
The diminutive Tutu got the crowd laughing when he accepted his honorary degree from Gonzaga – “It’s remarkable that I am now a Bulldog” – and kept them chuckling during his short address.
Sue Jackson, who attended the ceremony, met Tutu when she was working for the South African Council of Churches during the 1970s.
“He’s so funny. The man could make a living doing stand-up, but what he’s doing is so much more important,” said Jackson, who later moved to Spokane.
Her acquaintance with Tutu came shortly after the 1976 riots in Soweto, when students were killed for protesting the government’s requirement that Afrikaans be the official language of instruction in black schools. The deaths brought international attention to apartheid – South Africa’s official policy of segregation.
Tutu supported an international boycott to pressure South Africa into peaceful social reform. After democratic elections in 1994, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aimed at helping heal the country’s deep racial divide.
In recent years, Tutu has been an international voice calling for an end to poverty, racism and sexism.
During his address Sunday, Tutu urged inclusion for gays and lesbians and tolerance of other faiths.
“We all belong in one family: God’s family,” he said. “No one is outside of this embrace.”
Despite his standing ovation from the crowd, Tutu’s visit to Spokane wasn’t without controversy. More than 700 Gonzaga alumni, staff, faculty and students signed petitions urging GU President Thayne McCulloh to rescind Tutu’s invitation. They objected to Tutu’s support for gay marriage and abortion rights, saying his social views conflict with Catholic teachings.
About 11,300 people attended the invitation-only event at the Spokane Arena. Unlike most years, when the commencement is open to anyone, graduates had to request tickets for family members.
There was “an overwhelming response” from students and their families who wanted to hear Tutu’s address, GU spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn said. Many were already acquainted with his work and life story.
“It’s an honor to have him here,” said Mark Jordan, of Issaquah, Wash., who graduated with a criminal justice degree. “He’s really worked for social justice, and that’s a key part of Gonzaga University’s mission.”
But having an internationally known graduation speaker made it more difficult for Jared Hunt to get tickets for 28 members of his extended family to attend. Hunt, of Coeur d’Alene, graduated Sunday with a theology degree and plans to become a military chaplain.
GU worked one-on-one with students and families to ensure that all family members of graduates who wanted to attend could, Hahn said.