In 2001, my wife and I were gifted with 10 days in South Africa and Botswana. Our generous host was Horst Brunner, the former owner of The Lodge on Lake Lure. Hosted in Johannesburg and beautiful Cape Town and for photo safaris in two bush camps in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we were truly excited and invigorated.
As we were preparing to embark on our trip, Horst asked if there was anything special we wanted to do in South Africa. I responded that I would like to meet Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu. As it turned out, President Mandela was in a hidden location and under armed guard protection for his safety. Seeing him was out of the question, but with Archbishop Tutu, the news was better.
Mr. Brunner asked his administrative assistant, Lavinia Brown in Johannesburg, to see if she could arrange a brief meeting with the Archbishop. I realized, of course, just how presumptuous it was of me to even think that possible. However, on Thursday afternoon, Horst received a call telling us that there was an outside chance that we might get to see him, although a private audience with him was out of the question.
Perseverance and persistence, however, paid off. When I stated to Ms. Brown on the phone how eager I was to see him, if only for a minute, she promised to “make a plan,” as South Africans are prone to say, and she did. She informed me that on Friday at noon, there would be a service of the Mass in the St. Peter and St. Paul Chapel at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, and sometimes Archbishop Tutu was in attendance during that service. It would be worth a try.
We were there 30 minutes early, took seats close to the altar, and awaited the arrival of Archbishop Tutu to officiate at the service. Inasmuch as he was the highest-ranking cleric in South Africa, we merely assumed that he would be the officiant. Shortly before noon, a young Black priest appeared and began preparing the altar for the service. I assumed he was getting things in readiness for Archbishop Tutu. Suddenly, however, the young priest called us to order and began the Mass. Needless to say, I was disappointed, even indulging in a few minutes of pouting. After a moment, though, I chided myself for my attitude, realizing I should never come to the Lord’s Table just to see another human being, but rather to receive the gifts of grace. Having given myself the needed attitude adjustment, I threw myself fully into that ancient and beautiful rubric.
About two-thirds of the way into the service, we were instructed to share in “The Passing of the Peace.” There were fewer than two dozen of us, so we were able to walk about and greet every other worshipper. I had spoken to eight or 10 others when I turned to face a rather nondescript little man in a T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. He was short, had close-cropped hair, and wore gold-rimmed reading glasses. We briefly faced each other, shook hands, and wished each other God’s peace, before turning away to greet others.
As we did so, it suddenly dawned on me that I had just greeted and shaken hands with none other than the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. That humble, unassuming little man was, in fact, Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Georgetown and all of South Africa. Incredible to me was the fact that this wearer of blue jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers was a world-class Christian, a widely-acclaimed lover of souls, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by Nelson Mandela to help South Africa begin healing from the terrible ordeal of decades of demeaning and sometimes murderous Apartheid. Archbishop Tutu had indeed been part of the celebration of the Mass that day, but not in the regal trappings of the office he served so nobly, but in the everyday garb of the common man.
An Archbishop in jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, you say? It is not as preposterous as it seemed to us that day in Cape Town, for that One in whose train Desmond Tutu sought to follow declared, “He that would be greatest among you, let him become a servant of all. He, too, with towel and basin; He, too, riding humbly on a donkey; He, too, disguising well His nobility, attained greatness through humble service to others. Let us follow in His train.