Healing communities and memories in South Africa

By Peter Kenny
December 23, 2010

When Nelson Mandela walked free from jail in February 1990, millions celebrated the symbolic end of the hated system of apartheid with the expectation of peace.

Yet three months after Mandela's release, an Anglican priest, who had spent most of his adult life working against the racist system in South Africa, had both his hands blown off. He also lost one eye after a parcel bomb exploded in his hands in Zimbabwe, at a time when all the strife could have been ending.

Earlier this year a thanksgiving service for the Rev Michael Lapsley was held in Cape Town. There people were reminded of the healing and reconciliation that can come over the Christmas period, and that many witness now at the Institute for Healing of Memories in the South African city.

"Twenty years ago, Father Michael Lapsley received a letter bomb from the apartheid security forces. It blew off his hands, destroyed one of his eyes and an eardrum, and left him badly burnt," noted Jo-Anne Smetherham, a South African journalist.

She referred to the service in St George's Cathedral, church that was a rallying point for those fighting apartheid. "Praise poured in from across the world for the once-firebrand priest who now bears a message of peace to war-torn communities around the world, in the hooks he uses for hands."

Lapsley came to South Africa from New Zealand in 1973, and was shocked when he saw the level of discrimination and racial oppression in the country. Later he joined the then outlawed African National Congress, which now rules South Africa, and be became a chaplain to the ANC, but had to leave the country.

At the same Cape Town service, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "I had never met a more troublesome, obstreperous priest," Tutu said. "But now he is one of the most whole people I've ever met."

Tutu later told Smetherham, "When you meet him you're expecting something ghoulish to come out of him. But all that gentleness and compassion – it hits you between the eyes."

Lapsley had told ENInews in an interview without a trace of rancour, "I got the letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines that had been posted from South Africa. In that bomb blast I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered." He added, "I was helpless at first.

"I realised, however, that if I was filled with hatred and the desire for revenge, I would be a victim for ever," Lapsley recounted. "Other people gave me messages of love and support, and I felt the presence of God."

He said it is not enough just to survive as many do after such an experience and that while grieving for his disfigurement, "I realised I can be more of a priest without my hands than with two of them."

Today, Father Michael heads the Institute for the Healing of Memories. This facilitates the healing process of individuals and communities in South Africa and internationally. It says of itself that it redeems the past, "by celebrating that which is life-giving, and laying to rest that which is destructive".

Lapsely now works throughout the world.

In June, he visited Bosnia and after visiting the Balkan country he wrote, "The convergence of the narrowest forms of ethnic nationalism with brands of Christianity - Orthodox and Catholic in contradistinction to each other and to Muslims, is as poisonous and as violent in the former Yugoslavia as ever it was under Christian Nationalism in apartheid South Africa."

More on the Institute for Healing of Memories here: www.healingofmemories.co.za/index.htm


(c) Peter Kenny is former editor-in-chief of Ecumenical News International (www.eni.ch).

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