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Injured priest helps wounded South Africans heal

Special Report Writer
New York

There are times when Fr. Michael Lapsley would like to clap, pat himself or another person on the back. But he cannot.

Eleven years ago someone in the South African government sent the Anglican priest two religious magazines -- one in English, the other in Afrikaans. When he opened the English one, it detonated a bomb so powerful that it took out the ceiling of three rooms of his house and left a hole in the floor. Lapsley survived because he was standing at the time. Had he been sitting, the blast would have blown his heart and his brains apart, bomb experts concluded.

The parcel bomb robbed the New Zealand priest -- living in exile in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the time -- of both his hands and one eye. It burnt most of his skin, took his sense of smell and for a time his hearing, which has since returned.

“One of the things about having no hands is that you sometimes have to ask others to do things for you, and that includes clapping.” He’s wanted to clap about the fact that “the Boers [white South Africans] didn’t win,” he told NCR in May in New York, where he conducted a month of seminars, speeches and sermons on the healing of memories.

Reflecting on his botched assassination, he said he realized that in his ministry as a university chaplain and later as chaplain to an outlawed liberation movement, that he had not used his hands as much as he had his voice. Although he was now wounded, scarred and disabled, the death squads had been unable to quiet him.

A priest of the Society of the Sacred Mission, an Anglican religious order whose members have served in South Africa since the early 1900s, Lapsley came to South Africa after his ordination in 1973. In homilies, speeches and articles, he espoused the pacifism of Dom Helder Câmara, the Brazilian archbishop who died in 1999. Lapsley wanted to be a pilgrim of peace like his hero, Pope Paul VI. But the Soweto uprising of 1976, which claimed the lives of more than 600 black school children, prompted Lapsley to abandon his pacifism and to become chaplain to the banned and exiled African National Congress -- first in Lesotho and later in Zimbabwe.

During the years in which he was banned from South Africa, Lapsley was criticized by some in his order and by those in the Anglican communion who opposed his liberation theology and support for the African National Congress. Though he withstood disapproval within his own church family and survived the bombing, Lapsley wondered how he could ever return to the land and peoples of South Africa that he so loved.

The answer came while he was recuperating at his sister’s home in Australia and learning to use the hooks that were specially made for him. A friend -- exiled like Lapsley -- had just returned to Cape Town where he had heard about the likelihood of setting up a trauma center for victims of violence and torture. The friend suggested that Lapsley return and work at the center, noting that “You are more qualified. You have an advantage.”

A year later Lapsley did return to South Africa. By now he could drive a car. The hole the bomb had made in his face had been filled in with a glass eye. His appearance and recovery surprised many, including his bishop in Zimbabwe to whom Lapsley confided: “I think I can be more of a priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands.”

What happened to Lapsley when the bomb burst has given new meaning to him when he celebrates Mass. “So much of priesthood is about pouring water, breaking bread, drinking wine,” he said. It is also about the body and about “blood poured out for us.”

His devotion to Mary, who watched her son being crucified, helped Lapsley to know that Jesus and his mother understood the pain the bomb inflicted. During his long recovery he recalled an Orthodox image of Jesus with one leg shorter than the other. The picture conveys Isaiah’s vision of the savior as one who is disfigured and not beautiful to behold, the one from whom some are physically repelled, the very opposite of the Western Jesus, he said. The image helped Lapsley see that “disability, incompleteness and imperfection are actually the norm of the human family.”

Whether he is celebrating the Eucharist or just being around others, he has found that “people share their internal brokenness more because of the sight of my visible brokenness.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work he has been doing since August 1998 when the Institute for Healing of Memories was established in Cape Town with Lapsley as its director. The institute grew out of the chaplaincy project of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture where he had worked the five previous years.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair, it soon became apparent that only a few South Africans would be able to tell their stories. In all 22,000 gave testimony, 18,800 were declared victims and 7,700 sought amnesty. The commission granted amnesty to 800.

But Lapsley argues that all South Africans were hurt by apartheid whether as victims or oppressors. The journey to human wholeness after decades of injustice has become the chief work of the institute. It occurs through Healing of Memories workshops that have developed as a parallel process to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The institute has designed workshops for the Franciscan and Carboni fathers, the Dominican sisters, the Catholic diocese of Port Elizabeth and the Congregation of Consecrated Persons in Cape Town. The workshops provide the religious bodies with the space in which to discern how apartheid affected them and their lives in community, Lapsley said. Similar workshops have been designed for groups in East Timor, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.

During apartheid, religious houses were often more a reflection of society than an alternative to it, he said. “You expected the regime to oppress you, but this was your own family,” Lapsley said, describing how many activists within religious orders “still feel the pain of what the institutional church did to them.” For many, the hurt within their congregations was deeper than it was in the broader society, he said.

The first step toward healing is an acknowledgment of the damage that has occurred. Taking that initial step out of denial is difficult, the priest said. “People wait decades for a safe space where their stories can be acknowledged, reverenced and a moral drawn. They need to hear that what happened to them was morally wrong.

“Often they hold on to victimhood because it’s all they have,” he said. Lapsley tries to walk beside those who have not had their wounds and pain acknowledged and recognized. For two-and-a-half days, participants attempt to confront the issues raised at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level, rather than an intellectual one.

Those who attend the workshops come not wanting revenge, but “longing to rest the poisons of the past that would destroy us.” The workshop helps them to take from the past that which is lifegiving, he said.

They reflect on their feelings of anger, hope, hatred, joy, isolation and endurance. Often they discover the depths of their common humanity. Participants create a celebratory liturgy that includes poetry, dance, song, prayers and readings. Lapsley said that this life-affirming ritual functions as a symbolic release from destructive memories. It aids them in their journey from victim to survivor to victor, he said.

The institute is respectful of the different faith communities and belief systems in South Africa. Its workshops are run nationally in cooperation with the South African Council of Churches.

When Lapsley thinks about his adopted country, he said he is reminded of the second-century martyr, St. Lawrence. When asked by Roman persecutors to produce the wealth of the church, St. Lawrence presented not the gold and silver the Romans sought, but rather the aged, the sick, the blind and the cripples, and said: “Here, here, is the wealth of the church.”

By that same standard, South Africa’s suffering souls are the church’s great wealth, Lapsley said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001