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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're taking the Long View this week - our occasional series with people of long experience. Today, a man of faith and fight, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose new book is called "Made For Goodness." During apartheid, Archbishop Tutu railed against the injustice and inhumanity of South Africa's government.

Now 78, in a magenta habit with a silver crucifix around his neck, he is the picture of a holy man. Looking back on his boyhood in a black township, Archbishop Tutu remembers an urchin with a fondness for marbles and comic books, which led me to ask: Did you like going to church as a child?

Archbishop DESMOND TUTU: I - we had fun. I mean, I still remember things like (singing) if God be for us, if God be for us, who can be against us? Who? Who? Who can be against us, against us?

And it was a fantastic thing to have much, much later, to remember, yes. If God be for us in our struggle against injustice and oppression, who can be against us? But, yeah. And I have to say the first Anglican priest I met was an incredible human being, a black priest. And we used to go with this priest to farms where he had mission churches. The priest was treated like a big chief. You know, when he arrived, I mean, each time I still remember this incredible priest who had this degree of caring for lesser mortals. And, who knows? I mean, I was probably seeking to emulate him.

MONTAGNE: As a teenager, you nearly died of tuberculosis.

Archbishop TUTU: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You spent months institutionalized in a TB hospital.

Archbishop TUTU: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And for someone at that age, you suddenly see the possibility of your own death.

Archbishop TUTU: Yes. Yes, I was in the hospital for 20 months. We were in a general ward and I'd observed in the ward that almost all of the patients who coughed up blood ended up going to the - you call it a morgue, where we call it a mortuary. And one day, this thing happened to me. I coughed, and the blood just came gushing out of my mouth. And I sat and I still can't believe that that happened. But I sat there and I said to God, well, if it means I'm going to die, that's OK. I don't think I've ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB.

MONTAGNE: Hm. It was interesting to find out in the book that your first idea of who you would be, what your career would be, was that you would be a doctor.

Archbishop TUTU: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But you couldn't afford to go to medical school.

Archbishop TUTU: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And then ultimately, to go into the ministry, you described - what? That you were grabbed by the scruff of the neck by God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Archbishop TUTU: Well, I mean, my first love was medicine, and especially after getting TB I was determined I wanted to be able to find a cure. But I was admitted to medical school, but my parents didn't have the money to pay the fees.

So, you know, one of my favorite prophets is Jeremiah. In part, it is because Jeremiah is such a cry baby, and I also tend to be a cry baby. I holler at the troubles I had, as it were. But Jeremiah also was saying he didn't want to become a prophet and said to God, I - if I say I don't want to speak on your behalf, your word is like a fire in my breast. I can't hold it back. And sometimes when people ask why I was going on in the fashion I was, despite the reaction of the government and all of their nastinesses(ph), and I said, well, although we claim that we have a free will, in some ways, God just grabs us by the scruff of the neck and, willy-nilly, you have to do what it is that God wants you to do.

MONTAGNE: Jumping ahead to the late 1990s, you were asked by Nelson Mandela to become the chairman of South Africa's Truth in Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop TUTU: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You had to sit through some very terrible stories.

Archbishop TUTU: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Some of them we - I mean, many of them we couldn't relate right now on a morning radio show. Did you ever find that your faith in the basic goodness of people was shaken?

Archbishop TUTU: No. Perhaps if one had listened only to the atrocities, an account of the atrocities that people committed, but we were constantly being bowled over by the extent to which people were ready and willing to forgive. But, I mean, we had, obviously, the spectacular example of Nelson Mandela, who could come out of 27 years incarceration so eager to be able to forgive.

MONTAGNE: Have you found that your relationship to God has changed as you've grown older?

Archbishop TUTU: Yes. I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Archbishop TUTU: You know, previously, I mean, you - you want - and I still do. I mean, you have a kind of shopping list that you bring to God. But more and more, I think you are trying to grow in just being there. Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter, you are just there in front of the fire, and you don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, thank you very much for joining us.

Archbishop TUTU: God bless you. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Archbishop Desmond Tutu's new book is "Made For Goodness." Tomorrow, God and suffering, the Long View with Rabbi Harold Kushner.

This is NPR News.

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