He seemed to embody the best of what it is to be human, at a granular level. The small generosities, the willingness to listen, the empathy, lightening the mood with … let’s face it, some pretty silly jokes.

One Christmas Day in the 1980s, Desmond Tutu led a packed church service in Soweto, the Black Johannesburg township and fulcrum of protest against white racist rule in South Africa. An American family — mine — found standing room at the back, writes Christopher Torchia of the Associated Press.

We were among the few white people in the congregation and, as we shook hands with Tutu on the steps upon leaving, he made a joke. Something like: “So, it really is a white Christmas.”

Evoking the Irving Berlin song ’’White Christmas,” famously crooned by Bing Crosby, in tense, dusty Soweto was quintessential Tutu. He couldn’t resist a pun about race in an inflamed country suffering the agonies of apartheid, the system of white minority domination that was extinguished in 1994.

(Actually, every once in a very long while, it has snowed in Johannesburg, but certainly not at Christmas time, which falls in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer).

When Tutu died Sunday at age 90, he was remembered as a Nobel laureate, a spiritual compass, a champion of the anti-apartheid struggle who turned to other global causes after Nelson Mandela, another moral heavyweight, became South Africa’s first Black president. Barack Obama praised Tutu for fighting injustice wherever he saw it.

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