Interview with Mpho Tutu on “Made for Goodness”

In “Made for Goodness,” Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu welcome us into their South African family—a courageous community of relatives and friends who produced one of the great miracles in modern history: the end of Apartheid.
The book is a unique choice for small-group discussion or daily inspirational reading. At ReadTheSpirit, we see the flood of “inspirational books” pouring out of publishing houses. Most are focused narrowly on individual desires. Many promise some form of prosperity along with a dose of inspiration. Most inspirational books give us cheap grace and simplistic solutions to life’s challenges.
In contrast, “Made for Goodness” is about costly grace—goodness so heroic in many cases that your heart will ache at the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women. There’s no tiptoeing through soft-focus fields of flowers here to inspire and reassure us. In this book, you’ll read about real-life experiences like the day Desmond Tutu encountered a horrific site of mass murder. In another section, you’ll read about a woman who survived days of torture by Apartheid-era thugs without ever betraying the safety of her friends and family—and died as a result. In short, you’ll read about ordinary people who became true saints.
As surprising as this may sound: In the end, this is a book about finding joy in daily life.

The Rev. Mpho Tutu, 46, is an Episcopal priest who was ordained six years ago by her father, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, now 78. She lives in the U.S., specializes in spiritual direction and leads annual spiritual pilgrimages back to South Africa. She is the founder and executive director of the Tutu Institute for Prayer and Pilgrimage. (LINK) She is married to journalist Joseph Burris and they have two daughters: Nyaniso and Onalenna.


DAVID: Let’s begin with the most startling truth in this book. Despite everything you, your father and the South African people have witnessed in this long struggle—despite all the violence and hatred—this book is about joy. How can anyone possibly find joy in the midst of such heartache?

MPHO: This comes from the deep recognition that evil will not and cannot and does not have the last word. For my father and me, this is pinned to our hope as Christians, but even the evidence of history is that evil does not have the last word. Think of the number of dictatorships, the number of tyrannies, that have marched through history as though they will always and ever reign supreme. Yet, they did not. Look back even over the past half a century and see the dictatorships that have bitten the dust, see the walls that have come tumbling down, see the tyrannies that have come undone.

In the face of human indomitability, evil cannot triumph—so we can find goodness and hope even in the heart of some of the most horrible things that we have experienced—and that is true for my father on an epic scale.

My life is small in comparison to my father’s life, yet I have seen this as well in so many small ways. I remember making a pastoral visit to a child in the hospital who had been sexually abused. At that time, my daughter was 5 and this girl in the hospital was about 8. By the time I visited her, she had been through a whole day of describing her ordeal to doctors and to the police. She was strung out as she sat there with her mother. The mother, too, was just completely exhausted. In making this visit, I had not been able to find someone to take care of my own daughter, so I brought her along with me with crayons and a snack to pass the time.

But you know what happened? That 8 year old saw my daughter and she wanted to play! Within minutes, they were on the floor together, sharing crayons and snacks. That’s what I’m talking about. Hope. Joy. You see that and you know that even the worst cannot defeat us, because the best is always yearning and struggling to come out in our lives.

DAVID: In your own passages in this new book, you always seem to have your eyes open to find hope and joy and wisdom in unexpected places. In one journey you took to Vancouver, you found wisdom in a man who most people would dismiss as merely the aide, the translator in this case, for the Dalai Lama. That’s an inspiring story.

And you include a story in the book about one of your pilgrimages back to South Africa in which you took Americans to visit the impoverished black township of Gugulethu outside Cape Town. There, you found the amazing “Mrs. Maphosela.” Tell us about that experience. First, how is her name pronounced?

A neighborhood in a black township in South AfricaMPHO: Mrs. Mah-PAW-selah. She lives in one of the black townships outside Cape Town and one day, some years ago, she had seen a young child out in the street at a time when a child shouldn’t have been there all alone. “Where’s Mommy?” she asked, and the child said, “Mommy is sick.” So, Mrs. Maphosela gave the child something to eat.

The next day—and the day after that—this happened again. It turned out the mother was HIV infected. When the mother was close to death, she asked Mrs. Maphosela to take care of this child for her. It was one of those things! Word spread through the township about what had happened. The first child was well taken care of, then someone just left a child on Mrs. Maphosela’s doorstep. More people began either asking her or leaving children on her doorstep. Why did she take care of all of them? She said, “Well, I must take care of them. What else am I to do?”

When we met her, she was living in a three-room house with a corrugated-iron roof and was taking care of 20 children at that time, aged between 8 months and the oldest was 21. Why was she taking care of the 21 year old? She said, “Where am I going to send this child who has no job?” She could not send her out into the streets alone.

They lived in this small home by bringing out pallets to sleep at night. The boys slept in the kitchen and the girls slept in the bedroom with her. She had volunteers who came to help them—women who were every bit as poor as she was who would help cook and clean and do laundry. Now, when you hear this, you may be thinking of loads going through a washer and drier. But in this household, it meant women standing outside at an open water tap with detergent and a bucket.

What was so striking at Mrs. Maphosela’s house was: One, it was obvious the children were loved and loved her. When she would sit down for a moment, the children were drawn to her. They swarmed her lap. They held her hand. She clearly was the life-giving person for them. Then, two, there is a high incidence of TB and HIV in that township. Because TB is transmitted in households with many people living in close proximity, her household has become one of the sentinel points for a study on HIV and TB. Those conducting this study on prevention have given her some income and they’ve helped her with budgeting and planning for this household. So, all these children living in her home were clean, well-fed, happy and so content. Amazing.

DAVID: I love the Psalms you wrote for this book. There are 11 of them, ending each one of the 11 chapters.

MPHO: Psalms? You know I have never thought of that word to describe them, but I actually like that description. Yes, they are Psalms, aren’t they? We had called them prayers or poems as we wrote them. But I like using the word Psalms so maybe I’ll start describing them that way myself. They are very important. This book actually came about almost backwards from what you might expect. We wrote these prayer-poems, these Psalms, first. Then that led into the chapters we wrote to describe these ideas.

DAVID: Fascinating! So, you began with these Psalms and then turned them into the prose, the stories you share.

MPHO: Yes, it was almost like praying onto paper. It wasn’t quite a one-to-one process, you know, not quite line for line. But these prayer-poems were the source out of which each chapter grew and finally the entire book.

DAVID: One reason I thought of calling them Psalms is that music is such a vital part of African culture. You describe one electrifying scene in your book in which a group of young people dared to stand bravely and sing defiantly—even though they risked a violent response. Tell us a bit about the importance of music in South Africa.

MPHO: Music underlines everything in South Africa, particularly in black communities. Obviously, it’s central to worship. In the black community during worship, they’ll never say what they can sing. Any piece of liturgy that is written down can be sung—and will be sung in South Africa. In daily life, song is what carries people through their work. Even when songs aren’t voiced, they’re always present. Song carries the underlying themes of living.

DAVID: Now, you’re an American and music is everywhere in the U.S., too. Every young person has some kind of portable music player. The most popular TV series right now is “American Idol.” How is music different here, compared with South Africa?

MPHO: In America, music is privatized or professionalized, but that’s not the case in South Africa. Everybody sings in South Africa. Well, I must say that right now in South Africa, the culture is different than when I was growing up, because many young people do have headphones and they often listen to music from other countries. But at least in the South African context in which I grew up, music was not a private enterprise. Music was communal. When you heard someone singing at work, harmonies formed around that music. More often than not, you’ll hear several people singing together. Music brings people together there; music doesn’t separate us like it can here.

DAVID: Your book also is a testament to the power of generational wisdom—sharing wisdom from one generation to the next. So, finally, talk a little bit about this father-to-daughter connection.

MPHO: The generational connection has power and poignancy for me. For a very long time, the one thing I was sure about in life was: I’m never going to be a priest. (Laughs.) For a very long time, that wasn’t possible in our church in South Africa, so that was fine. Then, finally, I entered into my vocational discernment and I was ordained six years ago.

In that process, I experienced my father as sort of a burden, a weight. He would give me this sort of tortured advice about everything I was supposed to be doing. And I could not escape him in any seminary class! (Laughs.) You know, someone was assigning one of his books for us to read or someone was quoting him. I couldn’t escape him! (Laughs.)

But you know what happened? That burden shifted. I realized that it was a blessed weight—a gift. I realized that this was adding substance to our relationship. The space between us changed. We had a different vocabulary to talk about our lives.

Now, we have a common theological language we share. There’s a different place, now, where we can talk. And, you know, it’s very nice sometimes to be able to stretch his mind a bit, too! (Laughs.)

Care to read more about “Made for Goodness”?

You can order “Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference” from Amazon now.

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