Late last month, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu died at the age of 90. Tutu won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting the racist apartheid system in his native South Africa. When the apartheid system was finally dismantled in South Africa, Tutu became an important member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that was designed to address the human rights abuses which had occurred during the apartheid era and to help the country—and its people—heal and move forward.
Tutu was one of the great spiritual giants of our time, so when I learned that he had once visited our fair city of Three Rivers, I was shocked.
Prior Aelred is one of the monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey just outside Three Rivers. After Tutu died, the Prior shared a number of posts on Facebook about Tutu’s life including his memories from the bishop’s visit to Three Rivers. Prior Aelred shared the photo of Tutu at the abbey that you see above, and it’s with his permission that I share it with you. The Prior also mentioned he learned the archbishop loved peanut butter during his visit!
While the Prior shared many anecdotes about Tutu, one that made a particular impact on me was the story of how Tutu discovered his vocation to the priesthood.
Tutu met the man who was to become his mentor, Anglian priest Trevor Huddleston, when he was only nine-years-old. Tutu recalled he was walking with his mother down the street in apartheid South Africa when a white clergyman approached on the sidewalk. At the time, blacks were expected to step into the street when a white person approached and to also tip their hat to the white person as a sign of respect.
But before Tutu’s mother could step off the sidewalk as was expected, the white clergyman stepped into the street himself and tipped his hat to Tutu’s mother as he passed. Nine-year-old Tutu was astonished and asked his mother what had happened.
“The white man stepped off the sidewalk,” his mother explained, “because he is a man of God.” When his mother mentioned this man was an Anglican priest, Tutu decided he wanted to be a priest and a man of God, too.
Huddleston’s gesture could not have been more modest, just a few steps out of his way and a tip of his hat, but that small gesture was the spark that ignited the remarkable life of Desmond Tutu.
That story about Tutu got me thinking about the profound importance that small gestures like Huddleston’s can make in our broken world, and I decided I wanted to write a column about this idea. And then a few days later, when I was out on a run, I had an interesting experience. I was running the route in my neighborhood I run almost every day. It was cold and I was probably going slower than usual. When I looked up, I saw a teenage boy standing by his car, watching me.
“Hey man, I see you run by here almost every day,” he said to me as I approached his house.
“Yep,” I said catching my breath to reply.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Almost six years,” I told him as I jogged by.
“Way to go!” he said.
Until that moment, I’d never really thought about the fact that my neighbors who lived on my running route saw me run past their houses quite often. Running is something I don’t really think that much about. It’s become one of my habits, something that I do without thinking. But my running routine had been witnessed and it had made an impact on at least one person.
Of course, I don’t know what that impact was exactly and I probably never will. But whatever the impact was, it was enough for him to stop what he was doing and encourage me as I passed by.
In 1984, R&B musician Rockwell released a song called “Somebody’s Watching Me” about a paranoid man who feels like people are always watching him, and to quote the song “I have no privacy!”
It’s a great song, and that sentiment isn’t really paranoid; it’s true. People are always watching us. They watch us when we walk—or run—down the street. They watch us when we interact with waiters and waitresses. They even watch us when we are dealing with loss and failure.
I started running over a decade ago after an overweight guy I didn’t know chatted me up at the coffee shop and casually mentioned that he was training for a half-marathon. If he can do it, maybe I can too, I remember thinking to myself after he left.
While we can’t all be great in the way that Desmond Tutu was great, all of us can strive to live our lives like Trevor Huddleston did, quietly showing reverence and respect for everyone. Our daily lives may be filled with many tedious and seemingly insignificant tasks, but the things we routinely call insignificant often aren’t really insignificant.
Sometimes when we do insignificant things other people are watching, and whether we know it or not, they are being inspired.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].
Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.