South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, seated in the back seat of a limousine with his wife Leah, listened in silence as a fellow passenger described him as a Mahatma Gandhi, a Lech Walesa, a Martin Luther King. "The passengers coming in from Nairobi were just bug-eyed when they saw him," gushed Lia Belli, a Democratic activist who accompanied the black Anglican prelate on his journey from South Africa.
Tutu lowered his eyes during this lavish praise, appearing slightly uncomfortable but not surprised. With his Nobel Peace Prize and the growing American protests against apartheid, Tutu has found himself treated as a celebrity in California, sought after by media and politicians alike, hailed as a historic prophet whose fame is still at its infancy.
Tutu, 53, responds to laudatory comparisons by either dismissing himself as unworthy or playfully wisecracking to show that, after all, he is as human as the next man. Maneuvering his way through a crush of cameras during a City Hall visit, Tutu grinned broadly at the clamor surrounding him.
"I love it myself," he quipped in his lilting voice, laughing spiritedly.
Tutu's American visit, most of it spent on the West Coast, is expected to raise $80,000 for victims of apartheid. But unlike other prominent leaders who come to California to raise money, Tutu is not isolating himself at Beverly Hills fund raisers. Instead, he is visiting college campuses and black churches, squeezing in private meetings with political leaders anxious for a few minutes with the charismatic leader.
Tutu disarms his audiences with humor. He told students at UCLA that he would have said he was "tickled pink" to be there but, given his complexion, he wouldn't be believed. At times, he is almost irreverent. Using a biblical story as a parable in a speech, he described Adam's exclamation of "Wow!" upon meeting "the delectable creature Eve."
Tutu resists the frequent comparisons of himself to Martin Luther King Jr., although like King, he promotes peaceful means of achieving the end to racial segregation in his homeland, where blacks compose the majority of the population but are prohibited from voting.
"No, he's too great a man," Tutu said in an interview. "Now, I keep saying so to people and sometimes they think I am falsely modest. But for one thing, he was a pacifist . . . I am not. I think pacifists are people of very high moral tone. And he was a tremendous orator. He really had a way with words, didn't he?"
Noting the failure of peaceful efforts to dismantle apartheid, Tutu said: "When you are faced with a Hitler, I don't think he listens to moral persuasion. And when he pushes people into gas chambers, you have to do something to stop it. I think there are things you have to fight for and maybe be killed for."
The intense attention has led to some awkward moments for the short, bespectacled, gray-haired prelate. He says it is illegal to support divestment in South Africa, and skirts persistent questions about whether he favors immediate withdrawal of investments in companies that do business in South Africa.
Earlier this year, he said he would give the government two years to begin dismantling apartheid before publicly calling for divestment and economic sanctions. In an interview, he said he proposed the timetable "to give them now the last chance.
"I think it's also important just to show them that I'm reasonable," he said.
But asked if he thought that students and American public officials should give the government the same "last chance," Tutu responded by strongly denouncing critics of divestment, stressing that his countrymen would prefer freedom to economic comfort and reiterating that he could be arrested for publicly supporting the movement here.
"And it may be that some people think it's a good thing for Bishop Tutu to be in jail," he said, his tone turning light, "but I would have thought it a better thing for Bishop Tutu to be in jail for something slightly more exciting than for supporting disinvestment in Los Angeles."
'I'm Not Crying'
With his public statements a potential danger, Tutu looks for other ways to show his sentiments. When Mayor Tom Bradley promised at a City Hall news conference to press for divestment of city funds, Tutu beamed happily. Later, he told an audience that although he could not publicly praise Bradley's plan, he wanted everybody to know "I'm not crying" about it.
In Los Angeles, Tutu has been received with a kind of awed reverence. Those who have met him describe a sense of sharing a moment with a figure of history. At one of several receptions for him Friday, a largely black crowd waited nearly two hours for a chance to shake his hand.
He stood in a receiving line, warmly greeting each new stranger and clasping both his hands over theirs. "Wonderful! Wonderful!" he exclaimed over and over as he was told of anti-apartheid efforts here. His pervasive laughter regularly rose above the din of the room.
Jimmie Gray, 42, was among those who waited in another reception line Friday night to meet Tutu. The black Los Angeles teacher looked lost in a blissful daze as she finally got her turn. Tutu pointed to a "Divest Now" button on her lapel and laughed happily as he held her hand. But Gray said later that she heard not a word.
'Just So Excited'
"I was just so excited," she said, her eyes glassy, her voice breathless. "It was like meeting the Martin Luther King of South Africa."
Tom Epstein, an aide to state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), was equally overcome and expressed surprise with himself:
"I rarely get in a line to shake hands with a star--I go to so many of these kinds of political things--but I figured this is something different and really special. He has such moral stature. When he shook hands with me, he shook my hand strongly and firmly. He said, 'God bless you' and introduced me to his wife. He seems so real. "
Although Tutu has been escorted by a private guard here, security for his visit has seemed almost invisible. He is easily approachable in hallways and elevators as he moves from one meeting to another.
The California Democratic Council, an organization of liberal Democratic activists, sponsored Tutu's trip here and organized fund-raising efforts. Much of the money he expects to raise will come from church collections. The funds will go the South African Council of Churches and the South African Diocese to provide legal defense for political prisoners and financial support for their families.
On Saturday, Tutu attended the graduation of his daughter, Naomi, at the University of Kentucky. Another daughter attends Howard University and a third daughter and a son still live in South Africa.
The son of a school teacher and a domestic servant, Tutu had hopes as a young man of attending medical school. But his family could not afford the tuition. He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Johannesburg and taught high school before entering a theological college. In 1978, he became the first black secretary general of the interdenominational South African Council of Churches.
He fills his speeches with anecdotes about his past. Addressing a CDC convention Friday, Tutu described his excitement as a young boy at finding a tattered copy of Ebony magazine. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "I didn't know anything about baseball but I read there of one Jackie Robinson who had broken into major league baseball. And I grew inches. It was such a tremendous thing, the inspiration that many of us have received over the years."
He told an audience that included entertainer Stevie Wonder that American blacks who overcame racial barriers have helped South African blacks to survive amid the racism of "all those who were saying to us, 'You are a non-this, or a non-the other, a non-white, a non-European'--as though you came from Non-Europe."
But he also describes the frustration that he and other black South Africans have felt under the white minority regime. At times, in his public addresses, he speaks aloud to God.
"God, what must we do which we haven't done?" he asked in an agonized voice during a speech. "God, what must we say that we haven't said that people will know, God, that we're human."
Before an overflow crowd at a black church in South-Central Los Angeles Thursday, Tutu asked similar questions of God. And then, hunching down as if to make himself even smaller, he gazed at the ceiling and asked in a whisper that echoed in the silence of the church, "God . . . are you white?"
The audience howled and slapped their thighs with glee.
Times staff writer Leonard Greenwood contributed to this story.