Bishop Desmond Tutu celebrated his 81st birthday this past week. The accomplishments of his eight decades are well-known and many. We know the story: For most of his life he has labored in the racial tension and trenches of South Africa, working to break down the barriers of apartheid, where a white minority, through force and repression, subjected the African natives to untold suffering and injustice.
Tutu and Nelson Mandela, more than any other individuals, succeeded in bringing justice to that country, both eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Tutu has written and spoken out against racism, AIDS, poverty, the end of glorified militarism, and the desperate need for education. But the ending of apartheid, that totalitarian system of racism, will rightly be his legacy.
Professor and preacher Tony Campolo was on stage with Bishop Tutu many years ago, and he asked him how it happened that he became an Anglican priest, instead of a Baptist or a Methodist which most of the people of color in his country had become. So Desmond Tutu told Campolo this story:
“My family moved to Johannesburg when I was twelve years old. In Johannesburg, in the days of apartheid, when a black person met a white person on the sidewalk, the black person was expected to step off the pavement into the gutter to allow the white person to pass, giving the white person this gesture of respect.
“One day, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to my mother!
“I was more than surprised at what had happened and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He is a man of God; that is why he did it.’”
That man’s name was Trevor Huddleston, a priest who intentionally worked in the worst slums of the city with the forgotten, the marginalized and the suffering. When Tutu was hospitalized that same year with tuberculosis, again, it was Huddleston who came to visit the young boy; and it was Huddleston who would offer his own books and time to help Desmond catch up with his studies when he returned to school.
Years later, when Tutu became an adult, he transitioned his studies from education to theology. He turned to Trevor Huddleston’s Anglican Church, for he had experienced firsthand the love and service of this quiet, extraordinary man. Tutu decided that, “if the Church would have me, the profession of priest could be a good way of serving my people.” Thank God they took him, for the world is a better place for the years he has faithfully fulfilled his vocation.
Trevor Huddleston’s name is almost forgotten in South Africa’s freedom story, but not forgotten by Desmond Tutu. When Tutu is asked why he doesn’t hate whites he answers, “I never learned to hate…because I was fortunate in the whites I met when I was young.” Trevor Huddleston’s name is the first on the Bishop’s list, and a name never far away, for “Trevor” is the name of Desmond’s oldest child.
Stepping off of the sidewalk; tipping a hat in respect; visiting a little, poor, sick black boy in a slum hospital; handing over a few worn books to a hungry reader: Who knew what an impact these small acts of kindness would have on our world? Yet, that’s how love and service works.
Seeds get planted in the fertile soil of the heart, and they can’t help but growing. They burst open producing “a crop that is thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as what is planted!” So when you think the little things you do and say don’t matter, remember that sometimes there would be no Desmond Tutus without the Trevor Huddlestons.