Bishop Desmond Tutu is embraced onstage with the Montana Logging and Ballet Co. and Janine Pease in Helena in 1990.

There's a parlor game – Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – where you start out with a movie actor and see how many jumps it takes – movie by movie, role by role – to get back to Kevin Bacon.

Actor by actor, movie by movie, ad infinitum.

I am two degrees of Kevin Bacon from the late Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died Dec. 26.

I have a good college friend who is now a retired UCC minister in Sacramento, Calif. Over the decades, and in the course of her ministry, the Rev. Ginny Curinga’s path has crossed multiple times with Tutu's.

She told me once she was at a ministerial conference in Massachusetts, waiting at a bus stop when a "short, African man, laughing, big nose and an accent" started talking to her and a companion waiting for the bus. He began talking as if they were long lost friends. She told me she was a little put off by his easy friendliness. Until she got on the bus and realized "African, big nose, purple cleric, laughing."

"Yes,” she told me, "I had ignored Archbishop Tutu."

At another ministerial conference in the Big Sur area (the Pacific Southwest Mission Conference),

Tutu was the featured speaker.

"He was the speaker, and I wanted to ask him a question," Curinga remembered. "I stood up in the audience to ask him my question. I didn't pay any attention, but everyone else had remained seated. I stood and was suddenly surrounded by bodyguards.

"I didn't even know there were bodyguards there. My question to him was 'was he ever afraid?' At that time (Nelson) Mandela was still in prison, and was he afraid of being threatened? Clearly, he was threatened if he came all the way to California and he needed bodyguards.

"He had a great sense of humor – what he was saying was hard-hitting, then he'd go into peals of laughter. His humor allowed you to hear the toxic reality of our current history."

Tutu has his Montana connections, too. Over the years he became acquainted with members of the Montana Logging and Ballet Company, a singing group of preachers' kids and fellow students from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, now mostly headquartered in Helena.

Tutu, who was awarded the peace prize in 1984 for his work to end apartheid, spent 47 hours flying from Cape Town, South Africa, to the Treasure State for a Dec. 8, 1990, concert and fund-raiser with the group.

According to The New York Times, a reporter asked him, of all places, why he bothered to come to Helena.

"Of all places," Tutu responded, "it is the one with the Montana Logging and Ballet Company."

Montana Logging and Ballet reportedly raised $1 million in donations and scholarships during his visit to help educate American Indians and South Africans, Tim Holmes said.

Concert tickets were $50. There was a $500-a-plate luncheon at the Montana Club, the New York Times reported.

“He was relentlessly joyful, able to find that nugget of joy and nurturing in everyone,” member Bob Fitzgerald said in a telephone interview with the Helena Independent Record. “He had an uncanny ability to find the best in everybody and anybody and did it without fail.”

“He was just all in all a good person,” FitzGerald said.

FitzGerald said it was during a concert in Washington, D.C., that the group invited Tutu to come to Montana and “boom, he accepted it.”

Problems with apartheid had escalated when Tutu was in Montana, and he was asked how he could be so cheerful.

"He said, 'I am not in charge. We are called to be faithful and not successful,'" Tim Holmes recalled. "He was always full of humor and graciousness."

It was a well-kept secret, but Tutu preached that Sunday at both St. Paul's Methodist Church and St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.

But back to my college friend: Reporters meet famous people all the time – it’s the nature of the job. But there seems to be something beyond the normal in, over the years, what the Rev. Ginny Curinga and I managed to do separately or together.

Here's a story from her seminary days in Berkeley, Calif., at Pacific School of Religion: Somehow, she was usually the seminary student tagged to pick up whomever from the airport. So, one day she was sent to Oakland International Airport to pick up a seminary guest.

So she told me she was waiting at the Oakland airport gate, as was the marching band from Cal Berkeley. She idly wondered what was going on until the Dalai Lama deplaned and the band started playing.

Turns out, she was picking up the Dalai Lama. Yeah, THAT Dalai Lama.

And the Cal band started serenading him with "Hello Dolly ... It's so nice to have you back where you belong ... You're lookin' swell, Dolly ... You're still glowin' ... you're still crowin' ... you're still goin' strong."

Curinga remembers being momentarily mortified – until she looked at the deplaning Dalai Lama, who was laughing so hard he couldn't talk.

Our string of being peripherally in the orbit of internationally well-known theologians started a few years earlier. Attending our university were the children of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda.

Now, Tutu was the first African Archbishop of South African; Ernest Muryanbabazi Shalita was the first African Archbishop of Uganda. His three kids were just fellow students. But Curinga had a special place in their lives, to the point that when Archbishop Shalita visited the United States, he always stayed with her parents in north L.A. (Daughter Joy once admitted to her that "In Uganda, my family is sort of like the Kennedys and everyone knows who we are.")

Then there was the day Curinga rounded me up to visit the local rest home. She needed a "service" unit for her college degree, so the two of us sang hymns to strangers. Yep. Hymns to strangers. Furthering the notion of how some people just have interesting people find their orbit, one woman who was bed-bound and couldn't run away from us turned out to be (famous Welsh poet) Dylan Thomas' former girlfriend.

As undergrads, if there was something about our university that she didn't like, my friend protested. Staged a walk-out. Met with the university chancellor. Me, I'm more private and practical: I just do an end-run around the stupid rules.

So my friend just managed to find herself in the orbit of the Dalai Lama and two famous African Anglican archbishops. Her theology was personal, and based not only in the Gospel, but in the day-to-day struggle of the people in her congregations for personal and racial justice. That part of her personality went all the way back to our college days together.

In 2019, she called me up and told me she'd be at the Bar 320 Guest Ranch south of Big Sky in a week. She mentioned that the least we could do was have coffee at the nearest Denny's ... I told her the nearest Denny's restaurants were hundreds of miles away in either Missoula or Billings.

I drove down the Gallatin Canyon and spent a day with the college buddy I hadn't seen in a few decades. She told me she had a new hobby – she had started researching her family tree. Part of it was no surprise, as she already knew she was Italian on her dad's side. So when mobbed-up gangsters had their own branch on her family tree, no surprise.

What was a surprise, though, was who her great-great aunt was.

Her aunt Helen Pitts was the white, second wife of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

My friend, with all her life or college protests and striving for a gospel of justice and racial equality, and all the people who "accidentally" passed through her life from African archbishops to the Dalai Lama, unknowingly had the Gospel of Justice bred into her bones and her family tree.

That makes me about four degrees of Kevin Bacon from Frederick Douglass.

Karen E. Davis is a staff writer for the Belgrade News.

Recommended for you