At age 90 Desmond Tutu has crossed over on the largest rainbow. Tutu was ever the agent of justice and reconciliation, especially in his homeland of South Africa.
Like many, I read Tutu before I heard him speak in person. The first time my eyes fell upon him he was in a procession in a large hall, dancing African style, sporting his signature contagious grin. At the time, I was taken with his small stature. I think that was part of the Creator’s joke, to house such a giant in a diminutive frame. The contrast was pleasantly jarring.
His was a steady and insistent voice for justice during the reign of apartheid. His words were timeless and applied to many contexts. In ways difficult to imagine, he counseled liberation in non-violent ways. Like Mandela, he tipped the society toward a new day without an accompanying bloodbath.
I remember his telling stories from the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa, a way forward that included the sharing of atrocities by victims even as perpetrators made public confession. On more than one occasion in these hearings Tutu had to lay his head on the table and weep. Such tears of compassion made all else possible.
Late in life Tutu spent time with the Dalai Lama, and they co-authored a book project on the subject of Joy. Their takes were different as we might expect, coming as they did out of their respective Christian and Buddhist traditions. But the convergence of thought was also stunning, as deepest the truths frequently surface out of the same bottomless sea.
I once heard Tutu share a kind of retrospective from his spiritual autobiography. When he was a small boy living in South Africa during apartheid, he was walking down the street with his mother who was a domestic servant. As they moved down the sidewalk Tutu looked ahead and noticed that a parish priest was approaching them coming the other way. As they arrived, his mother prepared to step down off the sidewalk into the street to allow the white person to pass. But before she could, the white Anglican priest stepped down into the street to instead allow him and his mother to pass on the sidewalk. And as he did, as they passed, the priest reached up and touched the brim of his hat, a greeting unknown from a white person to a black person in South Africa at the time.
It was that act, said Tutu, of a white priest stepping aside and regarding them with the smallest of gestures, greeting them in a land where they were regarded as less than nothing, that lit a fire in the young man. That demonstration of faith, that one gesture, inspired young Desmond to an astounding destiny. He would later pursue a calling as a priest in the Anglican church, later being elected bishop and archbishop. What inspired Desmond was a life that reflected the essence of the Christian life, practiced in the flesh.
We often assume that the only things worth our time are grand gestures and efforts. But the small things often reap unseen and powerful results. We may not live to see those outcomes, or we may, but the way forward comes to us one sidewalk at a time through the smallest gestures that imprint on people in unknown and powerful ways.
Happy dancing, Desmond, down the sidewalk among the uncountable multitudes of the lost, found, injured, healed, and joyful. As you knew and taught, in the currents of the great mystery we belong to one another. Even when it seems quite impossible, we do.