Truth and reconciliation … one small act of love at a time

I normally wouldn’t advise seeking wisdom on Facebook.

It’s become a trash soup of hate mongering, clickbait and fake news trolls — all mixed in with the cat videos and actual news we all want to see.

But, if you use a fine enough sieve, you can still find some gems of wisdom in the pig trough.

Such was the case this week when I came across two stories that underline both the fractured state of our society, and our hope for reconciliation.

The first is a story Desmond Tutu told BBC News in 2003 about one of the defining moments of his life.

Tutu, who grew up during apartheid in South Africa, recalled an incident when he was about 9, walking home with his mother.

The two met a white man, walking in the opposite direction. As blacks, they were expected to step into the gutter until he passed.

Instead, the white man stepped into the gutter.

“I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker,” Tutu told the BBC. “I didn’t know then that it would have affected me so much, but it was something that was really — it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat.”

The cleric was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who preached a “theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God,” Tutu recalled.

The encounter shaped Tutu’s path into the priesthood, a vocation that would lead him in 1986 to be elected the first black archbishop of Cape Town, and thus the first black primate of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church.

Tutu went on to serve as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after South Africa abolished apartheid.

Rather than sweep generations of hate, violence and persecution under the rug of “things best left in the past,” the TRC dealt unabashedly with both victims and perpetrators, and brought healing through a blend of accountability and grace.

That work likely averted a civil war, which would have claimed untold numbers of lives. And it all started with that simple act of love — of a man who had every advantage of status and authority, but who chose to see a young boy and his mother as his equals, in the eyes of man and God.

Fast forward to April 12, 2018, and the story of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.

The pair were arrested in a Starbucks for, apparently, being black in public.

We could — and should — spend a lot of time examining why Philly police waded through tables of loafing white people to arrest two black men for having the gall to arrive early to a business meeting. But, for now, I’d like to focus on what happened next.

The social mediasphere held its breath, waiting for Nelson and Robinson to justly sue the pants off the inaptly-monikered City of Brotherly Love.

But, something different happened.

On Wednesday, the story came out (shared by the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation) that the pair agreed to a settlement of $1 each, if the city would fund $200,000 for a grant program for high school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs. They’re also working closely with the coffee giant to improve race relations in the company.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson could have focused their energy on anger and retaliation. I wouldn’t have blamed them.

But, instead, they’re using the incident to make things better. They’re focusing on truth and reconciliation over rhetoric and retribution.

In the macrocosm of American society, this story may not appear to make much difference. Nelson and Robinson, and their decisions, are a drop in America’s ocean of latent racism and bitterness.

What possible difference could they make?

What difference could any of us make?

What difference could it make for one white man to recognize the inherent worth and equality of a young black boy and his mother in South Africa?

It makes all the difference.

Because, in the end, truth and reconciliation aren’t fostered by governments and corporations. Truth and reconciliation start in the hearts of everyday people, making everyday choices to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all those around them.

Most of us won’t face the circumstances of Desmond Tutu, Rashon Nelson or Donte Robinson. But, all of us do have daily opportunities to improve this world.

And, when faced with those opportunities, never doubt the power of a small act of love and compassion.

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