shari-ponder-story1.jpgHe was larger than life. He was a global moral leader and he agreed to meet with us.

I think I stopped breathing for a moment and I was not alone. All 17 students who had dared to venture across the world to the continent of Africa paused when it was announced that we would meet him.

When I first learned that the renowned Dr. Robert Franklin, former president of Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) would be leading a Laney Moral Leadership Travel Seminar in South Africa, I was one of the first to inquire, and was honored to be selected for this once-in-a-lifetime event that only Candler School of Theology could offer.

When I was accepted to sojourn, I could not help but recall how much my life had changed by deciding to answer God’s call and enroll in this Master of Divinity program. Two years ago, I was sitting in the office of a job that I loathed, and now I was sitting in Cape Town, South Africa with some of the world’s most brilliant minds and about to meet Apartheid’s most influential disruptor.

shari-ponder-story3-copy.jpgHe is aging, and he is ill. Our instructions were clear: do not grab him, do not hug him, his time is short, be brief, sit up straight for the picture, submit your questions beforehand and stay silent— our time is extremely limited.

I obliged. We all did. We did not care. All that mattered was being present. He traveled an hour to speak to us for just a few minutes. Moreover, he only agreed to come because we were from Candler and he had a special place in his heart for Emory and for future clergy. All five feet of him walked in and he was 12 feet tall. We stood frozen, but then he smiled. The atmosphere changed. With the burden of struggle, wisdom, old age, ailing health, his cane and his daughter, he walked around to every single one of us to shake our hand and bless us.

shari-ponder-story4.5.jpgHis message for us was a reflection on the past and current struggles of racism and oppression. He said, “God must say, ‘Do they ever learn?’ We can only be redeemed together. I am saying all of this to you and I am saying all of this to me.” He challenged us to be moral leaders and never forget our time in South Africa, never forget to recognize the silenced voices of the oppressed, never forget the marginalized in the States and never forget our instruction at Candler.


He is disruptor, outspoken critic, teacher, author, lecturer, Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa, and friend of Madiba. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu demanded that we be the moral leaders that we were called to be and use our seminary training to see it through.

Candler gave me access to this experience. This was not just one of my most transformative moments in seminary, it was one of the most transformative moments of my life. I will remember.

shari-ponder-story5.jpgIn Zulu, siyabonga (see ya bonga) is how you say “thank you.” I was told that it literally means “we thank you.” Even if the conversation is just between two people and one says “thank you,” they are still saying “we thank you.” Africa is community. It is not even plausible to say thank you from one person to another because whatever you did for me, everyone in my ancestry thanks you, and thanks everyone in your ancestry for helping me.

Siyabonga, Archbishop Tutu. Siyabonga, Candler.

Archbishop Tutu has longtime connections to Candler and Emory; he served as visiting Robert W. Woodruff Professor from 1991-92 and 1998-2000.

Top photo: BowTie Photos, LLC

Second photo: Taken at the Desmond Tutu Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa

Third photo: BowTie Photos, LLC