The man who changed my life
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The epitaph on the granite base of the statue in the English town of Bedford simply states, “No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston,” the words of Nelson Mandela.
I don’t know if Father Trevor, as we used to call him in Sophiatown, would be totally comfortable with the fact that a 12-word précis of his life should include the descriptor, “white”. Why did Madiba not use a nationalist or professional reference instead, such as, “No English person” or, “No Christian person”?
No. Madiba was right. When we grew up, the colour of our skins was what defined who we were, where we lived and what we were allowed to be. It was fundamentally important that Trevor Huddleston was white.
His kindness and compassion, his servant leadership, were evidence that not all white people had horns and tails. He taught us that the limitations imposed on us by apartheid were in fact false ceilings, that the sky was the limit.
One of the earliest and most painful memories of my childhood is accompanying my father, a school principal, to the shop – I think it was in Ventersdorp – and witnessing him being humiliated by a young white shop assistant… being addressed, “Ja, boy?” by one much younger than himself, and being forced to swallow his pride.
But I believe the most defining moment of my life occurred when I was about nine years old, outside the Blind Institute in Roodepoort where my mother was a domestic worker. We were standing on the stoep when this tall white man in a black cassock, and a hat, swept by. I did not know that it was Trevor Huddleston. He doffed his hat in greeting my mother.
I was relatively stunned at the time, but only later came to realise the extent to which it had blown my mind that a white man would doff his hat to my mother. It was something I could never have imagined. The impossible was possible.
I subsequently discovered that this was quite consistent with Trevor Huddleston’s theology: that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God.
A few years after that meeting in the street, I was admitted to Coronation Hospital, in Coronationville, where I was diagnosed with TB. I was to spend 20 months in hospital. Trevor Huddleston visited me regularly; he made me feel very special.
I remember drawing a birthday card for Father Trevor in 1947, and later listening to the wireless broadcast of the wedding service of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh.
It was not that I was extra-special in any way. He made so many people feel special, everyone he touched. He was one of us, a member of our family, God’s family. When he wore a white cassock it quickly became grubby from all the little hands that tugged him and hugged him. Then he’d shoo us out of the office because he had to meet someone “important”. The fact is, he made us all feel important – because we all are!
There was a boy called Hugh, for example, who – like me – was pretty much a little township nobody. Hugh was pretty good at blowing the trumpet, not that he could afford one of his own. The next thing, Father Trevor made contact with Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and a trumpet for Hugh was on its way from the US. Bra Hugh Masekela went on to become one of the world’s top trumpeters.
Of course, Father Trevor was eventually to leave Sophiatown. After 13 years of service, in 1956, he returned to England. In 1960 he was appointed Bishop of Tanzania, and in 1978, Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean. He was a founder member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, was appointed vice-president of the movement in 1961 (serving for 20 years), and served as president from 1981 to 1994.
Trevor Huddleston’s humanity, and the passion with which he opposed apartheid – and other injustices and indignities – were attributes I have sought to emulate throughout my life.
As a nation that is still seized with the necessary process of healing the divisions of its past, we would do well not to allow the contributions of giants, such as Father Trevor, to be lost in the mists of time.
l Tomorrow is the centenary of Father Huddleston’s birth in Bedford, England. This article is the first in an ongoing, occasional series provided to the Cape Times by the Desmond TutuDesmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.