Born to the Purple

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A visit to U-M by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu led to the chance of a lifetime for a dozen Michigan Law students Oct. 30: a private lunch with a Nobel laureate.

It was a joyous, informal brown-bag affair, with water bottles and sandwiches set out on a square table in a conference room at the Rackham Building.

Not much actual eating went on.

Third-year law student Shekar Krishnan helped organize the visit along with the Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association, a Law School student group. He worked hard to find the words to introduce Tutu to the group.

“In the confines of our classrooms and our casebooks, we learn about justice, equality, and freedom,” Krishnan said, addressing the Archbishop directly. “But you have shown us how it is possible to achieve justice, equality, and freedom.”

Tutu, who was in Ann Arbor to accept a Wallenberg Medal from the University, opened the visit by asking the students to introduce themselves and share a bit about their backgrounds and interests in the law.

“I’d like to hear from you what you want to do with yourselves,” Tutu asked.

“Pass final exams?” one student cracked. The introductions and specialties – criminal justice, international human rights, politics, the academy – made a slow circle around the table.

“When I grow up,” joked 3L Debu Gandhi, “I want to have my own talk show … where I can have people on who will speak truth to power.” He followed that up by inviting the archbishop to be his first guest; Tutu laughed harder than anybody else even as he demurred.

By the time the introductions had returned to Tutu, he was able to make an observation about the group:

“You have all spoken about yourselves in relation to others,” he said, noting the group’s interest in public service. “Did you notice that?”

While Tutu’s tone was often jocular, his tenor was serious.

“It may not look like it, but as I look at you I’m looking at future chief justices,” he said, adding that he spent time on a recent visit to Harvard Law School with law professors who remembered Barack and Michelle Obama as law students there. “Some of the things that today look totally unattainable are in fact attainable because of people like you. So I would start off by doffing my cap at you.”

As the time came for Tutu to go, he adjured his listeners to ask “Why not? Why not? Why not? … You should dream. You should follow your dreams. Be idealistic and believe that you can help.”

The last question for the archbishop came from self-described “lowly 1L” Matthew Budow. After years of witnessing just how depraved and wicked human beings can be to each other – and in some cases, to Tutu personally -- Budow asked the clergyman “Where do you put your rage … so you can forgive?”

As is his custom, Tutu produced a story to answer the question.

“You could be like a vacuum cleaner, or you could be like a dishwasher,” he said, as if preaching to the parishioners of a small Anglican church back home. You can suck up all the hatred and evil you see and store it in a filthy bag, like a vacuum cleaner, he said – or you can rinse away the vile acts of the wicked and watch as they swirl harmlessly down the drain.

“That’s the reason why Jesus was able to deal with human suffering,” Tutu said. It’s not always easy, he added.

“I get angry with God. I rail at God when I’m upset. ‘How the hell do you let such and such happen?’ ” Tutu paused for a moment. “God is used to it. God gets it from all sides.”