*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Overcoming the pain of memories

by
24 May 2007

Michael Lapsley’s body bears the marks of violence. Margaret Holness talked to him about his work with other victims

WITH his grey beard and white habit, Fr Michael Lapsley, Southern Africa Provincial of the Society of the Sacred Mission, preaching near King’s Cross last month, looked every inch a traditional Anglo-Catholic monk.

But, as he gestured to emphasise a point, the high-tech hooks emerging from his sleeves told a different story. A letter-bomb, concealed in the pages of a religious magazine, blew away both hands and one eye 17 years ago. The explosion also damaged his ear drums.

So his visit to Holy Cross Church, halfway between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations — targets in the 7/7 bombings — had particular resonances for him.

Nelson Mandela had already been released when, in 1990, the bomb arrived at Fr Lapsley’s office in Zimbabwe, where he was serving as an ANC chaplain. Why seek to silence him so late in the apartheid struggle?

“At that time, releasing Mandela was part of a political strategy, not the result of a change of heart. Many did not agree with it, and wanted to shut up activists like me.”

The bomb curtailed his activities for several months, but it did not, of course, shut him up. His principal weapon was his tongue, as the BBC World Service had discovered when its religious-broadcasting department commissioned talks from him in the 1980s. Complaints swiftly arrived from the South African Embassy, and Pauline Webb, then departmental head, was deputed to edit his scripts for political controversy.

The bomb curtailed his activities for several months, but it did not, of course, shut him up. His principal weapon was his tongue, as the BBC World Service had discovered when its religious-broadcasting department commissioned talks from him in the 1980s. Complaints swiftly arrived from the South African Embassy, and Pauline Webb, then departmental head, was deputed to edit his scripts for political controversy.

MICHAEL LAPSLEY was once an ardent pacifist. One of seven children of devout Anglican parents in New Zealand, where his father was a municipal gardener, he grew up believing violence was always and everywhere wrong. And he took that view with him when, as a pious 17-year-old, he went to Australia to join the Society of the Sacred Mission. Joining the Society was for him a radical step. It meant taking God and religion utterly seriously.

He was still a pacifist when, in 1973, the order sent him to South Africa as a university chaplain. But within three years he had changed his mind. “I left New Zealand a human being, and in South Africa I became a white man. The injustice was so great, so much at odds with the gospel, I had to join the ANC. Passive resistance just wasn’t working in that context.”

He became such a high-profile activist that in 1976 he was banned from the country, and spent the next 14 years mainly in Lesotho, as an ANC chaplain. In a 1983 article in the Church Times, he made the case for armed resistance, writing: “In South Africa, to ask black people to be non-violent is to ask them to be collaborators in their own death. . . Is the ANC not fighting a just war? It did not take 50 years of non-violent struggle to make the decision to stop Hitler militarily. Why is it taking us so long to get the message about South Africa?”

BUT THE STORY doesn’t end there. The long-term legacy of Fr Lapsley’s assailant is to have created a powerful antithesis to violence. After a long period of recovery, Fr Lapsley returned to South Africa in 1998. Working alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as chaplain to a centre for people traumatised by violence, he saw that the Commission’s confessional approach was a necessary but not sufficient response. Because it largely involved those who had dealt, or who had received, the bigger blows of apartheid violence, it involved only a minority of those who suffered.

He started an organisation now known as the Institute for Healing of Memories, where any person with painful memories could have his or her story heard. So far, thousands of stories have been told to the Institute’s trained facilitators. Their work has spread to other African countries, particularly Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.

The powerful effect of the story- telling method is encapsulated in the comment of a woman caught up in the Rwandan genocide, who said: “I was able to vomit out the poison.”

Fr Lapsley says he has encountered the greatest difficulties in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, because of the continuing conflict in those countries. “In deteriorating situations, people need all their energy to survive. The space for healing opens up as conditions improve.”

The Institute now works also with people in pain unconnected directly to large-scale conflict — those suffering from HIV/AIDS or from rape or domestic violence. “The Healing of Memories creates a safe space where people can tell their stories. In the case of HIV sufferers, that includes how they feel about the one who infected them, as well the loss and grief they feel for others. There is also the question of dealing with stigma and rejection.”

In September, there is to be a workshop in the UK at the Well, an SSM centre at Willen near Milton Keynes; and a UK-based support group has been established in Oxford through Wesley Memorial Methodist Church.

So, back to the 7/7 bombings. What has Lapsley to say about the perpetrators? “Without for a moment condoning the terror, sometimes I can understand why a person has acted in a certain way. It is an inescapable, if unpalatable, truth that British participation in the illegal and unjustified war in Iraq has endangered the lives of ordinary British people, and increased the likelihood of indiscriminate acts or terror.”

And his response to the victims? “I would want reverently to listen, at heart level, to their story, and to acknowledge the wrong done to them. In the long term, I would be concerned about how they could be accompanied on a journey towards healing, which for some might be a very long one.

“My prayer would be that they would find a life-giving and peaceful response.”

Further information can be found on the institute’s website, www.healingofmemories.co.za, or through the Oxford Friends of the Institute: ans.laver@tiscali.co.uk Details of the September workshop can be had from enquiries@thewellatwillen.org.uk.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)