On Dec. 26, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died at age 90 in Cape Town, South Africa. He was a giant of human rights, spending his entire life in the service of the poor, both in his native country and around the world. He had a particular love for children and he was an inspiration to me. His life and work advanced the idea that we are a single human family, a community. He even coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe a country blind to the barriers of racism and poverty.

I can still vividly recall our first meeting in 1999.

My wife Georgia and I, along with our film crew, had been staked out at the Carter Center in Atlanta since 6 a.m. We were producing a series of video oral histories for Columbia University’s Oral History Collection. An interview with former President Jimmy Carter had already taken place and Archbishop Tutu was scheduled for the same morning — not an ordinary day for any documentary filmmaker.

Desmond Tutu had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts to reunify South Africa as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A cleric, the Archbishop of Cape Town and a staunch opponent of apartheid, he was a voice of conscience at a time of great risk for those who spoke against a blood-soaked regime.

Georgia and I expected the iconic image of the Anglican cleric to arrive in a limousine. We had not yet met the mischievous and brilliant man who would touch our hearts, and so this was the image of Desmond Tutu we had in our minds. But he arrived with no entourage, driving himself in a nondescript sedan and wearing a purple T-shirt and jeans.

When he approached us, he pulled a clerical collar from his pocket, grinned and held it to his neck saying, “The archbishop will be with you shortly.”

He disappeared briefly into a small dressing room and when he reappeared, he looked every inch a Nobel Laureate. However, from the waist down he was still in jeans. He took his seat in a flood of lights and gear. Makeup was touched up, three cameras at the ready and then he said, “Can we pause a moment for prayer?”

Confused, the crew looked at one another. Then we joined hands, bowed our heads and he prayed: “Lord, bless this crew and bless this interview and may it be used in the spirit in which it is offered.”

And that was that. I’ve never seen a film crew so humbled and focused. It took the Archbishop all of 30 seconds to share his faith and hope with us.

“I believe very fervently that evil and wrong aren’t going to have the last word,” he said.

This would be my first of many interactions with the Archbishop. He always made himself available to help with any project that advocated for poor children. I remember calling his office in South Africa to request an interview and they put me through to him. I had a lump in my throat and could hardly make the ask but he was warm and funny and put me at ease. That interview took place at the United Nations in 2006 and appears in our documentary, The Same Heart.

On the subject of children, he would always turn overwhelming statistics on child hunger or child labor into something intensely personal saying, “Don’t think of them as figures on a page, picture the face of a child you love, picture your own child.”

And he would remind us that children are a gift to us all, turning to the Bible for his message: “You can imagine how Jesus would feel who was so sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable. He got angry only on a few occasions and one of the occasions was when they tried to stop children coming to him. We are far too frequently prone to push the most vulnerable to the end of the queue.”

He shared his unique African perspective on community and what he called “the bundle of life,” the bonds that reach forward to the future and back our ancestors and connect us eternally. “In the African concept there is something called Ubuntu,” he said. “The essence of being human is that a person is a person through other persons. I need you to become all you can become, for me to become what I can become.”

I grieve with the world over the loss of the Archbishop Tutu. He was an inspired role model for me and for anyone who wants to work for children and defend human rights.

Len Morris is co-founder of Media Voices for Children. He lives in Vineyard Haven.