CONCORD, N.H. — In 2008, when the Right Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was excluded from a global Anglican gathering because of his sexuality, Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday, came to his defense.
“Gene Robinson is a wonderful human being, and I am proud to belong to the same church as he,” Tutu wrote in the foreword to a book Robinson published that year.
Robinson, who in 2003 became the U.S. Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, said Sunday he has been trying to live up to those words ever since.
“It was quite surreal because I was taking grief from literally around the world,” he said in a phone interview. “There was probably at that time, and maybe still, no one better known around the world than Desmond Tutu. It was an astounding gesture of generosity and kindness.”
Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist for racial justice, died at age 90. He was an uncompromising foe of apartheid, South Africa’s brutal regime of oppression against its Black majority, as well as a leading advocate for LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage.
“Now, with gay marriage, it’s hard to remember how controversial this was, and for him to stand with me at the very time I was being excluded … it completely floored me,” Robinson said.
In the foreword to Robinson’s book, Tutu also apologized for the “cruelty and injustice” the LGBTQ community had suffered at the hands of fellow Anglicans.
Tutu, Robinson said, used his own experience of oppression to understand and empathize with others.
“He used that as a window into what it was like to be a woman, what it was like to be someone in a wheelchair or for someone to LGBTQ or whatever it was,” he said. “It was the thing that taught him to be compassionate.”
Robinson recalled the way Tutu’s laugh rippled across crowds of thousands as well as a private moment when they prayed together in the seminary Robinson graduated from in New York.
“There was nobody in pain that he wasn’t concerned about, whether that pain was a physical ailment of some kind or a mental illness or something to do with cruelty or degradation. It pained him,” Robinson said. “To sit in the room and hear him praying about those people was about as close to knowing the heart of God as I ever expect to know. I mean, I don’t even need to know more than that.”
Robinson served as the ninth bishop of New Hampshire until his retirement in early 2013 and later as a fellow at the Center for American Progress. Now 74, he recently retired as the vice president of religion and senior pastor at the Chautauqua Institution.