Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked why he became an Anglican rather than joining some other denomination. He went on to explain that in the days of apartheid, when a black person and white person met while walking on a footpath, the white person would expect the black person to step into the gutter and allow the white person to pass, nodding their head as a gesture of respect.
Archbishop Tutu then goes on to describe how,
“One day when I was just a little boy, my mother and I were walking down the street. A tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as the white man would expect, this man took a step off the sidewalk. As my mother and I passed, he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her!”
“I was more than surprised at what had happened. I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’. My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He’s a man of God, that’s why he did it.’ When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a person of God.”
Yes, a very simple and nice story. But also a very powerful and extremely sad story of how we treat people with disrespect and contempt. Desmond Tutu lived much of his early life being told he was different and worthless. This was all because of only one reason — his skin colour.
As a person of faith, I wonder what Jesus would say in response to our blatant disregard for our sister or brother? The story of Jesus provides a wonderful framework to live an active response to the needs of our time. Faith grounds us in the Gospel teachings of freedom of spirit, provides us with sincerity in our communication and guides us on our journey of personal integrity, truth and a joyful disposition.
Today, more than ever, we need more women and men who take the values and ideals of Jesus so seriously that they will act upon them. The challenge for each of us today is to find OUR way of acting so that we can be truly just to those around us. Those of us with baptismal vows, do have an obligation to treat people with love and respect whatever their disposition. While the world has changed a lot, Archbishop Tutu’s story remains a timely reminder that our actions matter. While we chose to embed this mistreatment in our history forever, it does not have to define our present and our future.
Whether society has changed or not, faith allows us to move forward. To be a person of faith means to act like Jesus and take initiative and our faith in Jesus Christ seriously, not just when it suits us. To be kind, gentle, generous, accepting, forgiving, understanding – these are values that matter in our society and what faith represents.
The love that we show is not some big miracle or publicly impressive example of profound love. Jesus talks about the little things, little ministries in life – visiting those who are sick, helping those in need, showing kindness and empathy – these ministries are recognised as a commitment to Christ. Jesus gave us two commandments — love one another as I have loved you and love your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Justice is love. Love is justice and this is why faith matters.
Sharon O’Keeffe is the Director – Identity and Outreach at Cairns Catholic Education