Yesterday, I gave a talk at a charity luncheon on the topic of the ripple effect of kindness -- like tossing a pebble into a pond, even the smallest act of kindness can have an effect that continues longer and farther than we can imagine. In my talk I shared a few stories, but I loved one in particular, about Bishop Desmond Tutu. I'm ashamed to say that prior to preparing for this talk, I knew very little of his life -- I knew he was an Anglican bishop, of course, and I certainly knew that he is committed to the equal rights of all people, and that his work earned him a Nobel Peace prize. But I didn't know anything about his childhood. So I thought I'd share what I discovered about him with you today, for two reasons -- first, just because it's a cool story.
Desmond Tutu was born on October 7th, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a city in the north west province of apartheid South Africa. He was one of 4 kids, and the only boy. His father was a teacher, and his mother was a cleaner and a cook – a domestic – at a school for the blind.
One day, when Desmond was about 9 years old, he was walking in the slums of Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg. He recalls what he described as “a white man in a black cassock” approaching. The man was Trevor Huddleston, the neighbourhood’s parish priest. As he passed Desmond and his mother, he doffed his hat – and Desmond was flabbergasted. At that time, the idea of a white man showing respect to a black woman -- a domestic, no less -- was unheard of. When he expressed his surprise to his mother, his mother explained that the white man was a priest. At that very moment, Desmond decided that he also wanted to become an Anglican priest. In subsequent years, he learned more about Trevor Huddleston (who was, himself, a staunch anti-apartheid activist), and he came to understand that Huddleston’s small show of respect to his mother was consistent with his theology that, as he says, “every person is of significance and infinite value, because they are created in the image of God.”
We know the rest of the story, of course: In 1960, Desmond Tutu was ordained an Anglican priest, following Huddleston’s footsteps, as he had vowed when he was a little boy. He became bishop of the country of Lesotho in 1976, where he also became the Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches. He was an outspoken voice against apartheid, comparing the rule to Nazism. The government of South Africa twice revoked his passport, and he was jailed in 1980 because of a protest march. He has worked tirelessly with the United Nations against poverty, HIV/AIDS, racism; and for gay rights, women’s rights, and even climate change legislation. And of course, in October 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is a prolific writer and author, and continues his work to this day.
Now. There’s obviously no disputing that Bishop Tutu is a brilliant, determined, hard-working, passionate man, and there is certainly an argument that he was destined for greatness under any circumstances. But what if Trevor Huddleston hadn’t shown a simple kindness to Bishop Tutu’s mom that fateful day? What if instead, he had simply been preoccupied with his work as he was walking those Sophiatown streets, and simply passed them, without giving them a second look? Since Bishop Tutu himself says that the encounter was a defining moment of his life, I venture to say that without it, it is at least possible that he would not have become a priest, let alone the Bishop Tutu that we know now. And considering the millions of people whose lives Bishop Tutu changed, it is breathtaking to consider that all of that magic might have simply been triggered by the witnessing of a simple, kind act.
The second reason I'm sharing this story with you is because, as is often the case when I'm preparing a talk, I find myself saying the things I most need to hear myself. This story stuck with me because lately, news events (up to and including one this week about a few University of Oklahoma frat boys who appear to have lost their ever-loving minds) have me feeling, to put it bluntly, really really angry. But I guess the truth is that there will always be news events that anger, won't there? The trick, I suppose, is harnessing anger, and transforming it into determination -- keeping my mission in mind and staying the course.
And remembering that kindness, ultimately, always wins.