The little girls nervously pulled the hems of their black skirts, and the little boys tugged at the collars of their white button-downs.
But when the crew lifted the curtain, the children of every race, creed and ethnicity dropped their hands and raised their voices for Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Murch-Mann Children’s Choir joined other performers Friday at Lisner Auditorium in a tribute to Tutu, who was the keynote speaker at GW’s Commencement Sunday.
The event was a fundraiser for South Africa’s Saint Barnabas College, which is dedicated to providing high-quality education to underprivileged children. The school’s administrators are devoted to “finding the true gems of African soil” in the new “rainbow South Africa,” according to a video about the school.
The children’s choir pledged to help end prejudice through its example, embodying the true spirit of Tutu’s message and the mission of St. Barnabas College.
For those who have been oppressed, newfound freedom makes the sky bluer, the flowers prettier and humans more wonderful, Tutu said.
“Freedom gives you eyes to see things with a new intensity,” he said.
The other performers and speakers said they heard that message of freedom loud and clear when Tutu helped launch non-violent protests against apartheid in South Africa.
Before bestowing Tutu with keys to the city, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said citizens should look to Tutu as a role model to end violence. Williams said his moments of discontent in the mayor’s office pale in comparison to the strife South Africans faced during the apartheid era.
Tutu described the atrocious crimes committed against blacks in South Africa. He said the oppressors confessed unbelievable acts of violence at the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which Tutu presided over.
One group of men admitted to barbecuing a dinner over a burning black body, Tutu said. But rather than focus on the despicable acts committed in South Africa, the archbishop said he was more impressed with the courage of the victims who spoke at the hearings.
A woman who had been injured in a hand grenade attack asked the committee for permission to meet the perpetrators because she wanted to forgive them, Tutu said.
He said such forgiveness has become the hallmark of South African people in the aftermath of apartheid. He credited South African President Nelson Mandela for teaching the world how to absolve even the most ardent of sinners. He said Mandela, who was sentenced to life in prison during the racial tension in South Africa, invited his jailers to his inauguration as guests.
But the event was not about Mandela or the committee – it was about Tutu’s mission to educate young people. As a member of the St. Barnabas Board of Trustees, Tutu called for more fundraising for the school located in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“I used to be called `Mr. Disinvestment’ because I called for sanctions, but I want to change that name now,” Tutu said. “I’d like to be called `Mr. Investment’ now. Invest in a child, you invest in the future.”
Tutu knows the plight of underprivileged children seeking education, South African Ambassador Sheila Sisulu said. Sisulu said Tutu’s family worked hard to get him an education. His father was a teacher, and his mother was a domestic worker, she said.
Early in his life Tutu aspired to be a doctor, then a teacher, and finally a priest. Sisulu said Tutu actually is like a doctor in many ways.
“In the end, he’d prefer to be called just `the teacher’ or just `the pastor’ despite all his achievements,” she said. “But I’d like to say he is the healer.”
Social activist and comedian Dick Gregory thanked Tutu for healing South Africa and for teaching all black people they can be “strong and beautiful.” But Gregory said this is no time for complacency because everyone still has much work to do.
“We learned a beautiful butterfly can fly all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way across the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “But the bald eagle can’t make the same trip.”