It was the fall of 1984. I was starting my first semester of seminary. 1984 was not as Orwellian as some thought it might be. I was excited, because in the coming Spring semester of 1985, Archbishop Desmond Tutu an activist that I had admired, who had been speaking out against racism and apartheid in South Africa, was coming to speak at our seminary.
And then, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the incredible amount of violence against blacks, Tutu had maintained a stance of non-violence. Like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, he was taking the very difficult high road.
He was now thrust onto the international stage. He had new speaking engagements all over the world. Would he cancel his visit to our little seminary in Ohio? He did not, but the stakes went up. The event became more public. It would not be possible for us poor students to attend.
So, we volunteered to serve at the dinner. We dressed up in white and black as they asked, and worked from the kitchen to the table. This was a chance to see and hear this remarkable individual.
At one point when I was in the kitchen, I turned around and there he was, standing there. Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop from Johannesburg, walked through the kitchen, greeting each of the servcrs, one by one, introducing himself and thanking us for serving. He even let us take photos with him.
This had a profound impact on me. Granted, I was a bit starstruck, but I was impressed. The mayor was present, and other dignitaries. Seating had been arranged by status. Most people spend so much time looking up the social ladder, those who serve are virtually invisible. No one sees the waiter, the dishwasher or the janitor. But he did. He went out of his way to meet us, greet us and thank us. In terms of teaching, this had more impact on me than some classes I took or books I read.
Every once in a while I have to remind myself of this event. This is what it means to be a Christian leader, not to pander to those with wealth, power and status, but to see those who are often invisible, to serve those who often serve, and to give dignity to everyone, no matter what their station.