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Transforming victims into victors


Michael Lapsley On 28 April 1990, a letter bomb mailed to Michael Lapsley's Harare home destroyed both of his hands and one of his eyes. Years of anti-apartheid involvement and active African National Congress (ANC) support had come at a price.

Like so many other anti-apartheid activists, New Zealand-born Anglican priest Father Michael Lapsley SSM, based mostly in South Africa, was on a hit list. That letter bomb was designed to kill. The price paid in burnt skin and missing body parts was high, but during the hospitalisation and healing process, Lapsley had to deal as much with the premeditated and systematic nature of the violence as the physical wounds. The bomb had been packaged between religious magazines.

When we meet, Lapsley puts out his arms, with their prosthetic hands, and hugs me. He asks me to sit on his left — his vision is better on that side. I position my back support (the consequence of a prolonged injury) in the chair and within minutes we are joking about disability, as only those so often boxed in this category can do.

Michael Lapsley is director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in South Africa. He is in Australia at the invitation of Bishop Freier from the Northern Territory. Lapsley explains he has been asked to use his 'Healing of Memories' approach in meeting the spiritual pain of Stolen Generation members. He offered two workshops in Alice Springs: the first to a group of Aboriginal women, the second to a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous people.

'In some ways Alice Springs was the most challenging assignment I've ever had,' says Lapsley. 'I've been interacting with this country since 1967 in different ways for different lengths of time. I was conscious ... that indigenous people are such a minority, are so oppressed, and have such a level of dysfunctionality as a consequence.'

Indigenous and non-indigenous cultures are dramatically different, he says. 'In some ways it's an apartheid society. There are two different worlds which don't often meet.'

The two-day workshop took place at the Irrkerlantye Learning Centre. On the first day, 13 Arrente women attended. As an ice-breaker, Lapsley described his experiences, then asked each woman to draw her story. 'I'd hardly got the words out and everyone was busy drawing.'

The participants were also given clay to work with. Once more Lapsley was amazed. 'We hadn't actually got to the exercise with the clay and they were all busy moulding. It was wonderful.'

The women must have thought so too, because there were more people on the second day than on the first. Not the usual procedure, but in this case most welcome. Lapsley plans to return soon. The hope is that Aboriginal Christian leaders might participate, and perhaps train as facilitators.

The 'Healing of Memories' methodology does not presuppose any particular belief system. Lapsley has worked with people around the world, including Buddhists in Sri Lanka, doctors, NGO workers and those affected by war. He keeps being invited back.

Lapsley visited Xanana Gusmão in prison, a meeting that made a deep impression on the East Timorese leader. In the lead-up to independence, Gusmão invited Lapsley to share his experiences with the future leaders of East Timor.

Lapsley recalls that the seeds for this work were first sown in tough terrain.

'First of all it was my own healing after I was bombed. A key part of that was that my own journey was acknowledged and recognised by people around the world. It was given a moral context; people saying that what had happened (to me) was wrong. That's the context in which God enabled me to make my body redemptive ... and move from being victim to survivor to victor.'

Lapsley also realised he was not the only one dealing with the wounds of apartheid. 'When I returned to South Africa I noticed just how many people were damaged, in their humanity, damaged by what we had done, by what had been done to us, and by what we had failed to do. It seemed to me we all had a story to tell. We all carried within us feelings about the past, the guilt, the shame, the bitterness, the anger, the frustration and hatred as well as the joyful stuff, the strength and endurance.'

'Healing of Memories' was conceived as a parallel process to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Only some were invited to tell their stories to the Commission, and Lapsley saw a need for all those who wanted to come forward to deal with their past — an issue he impressed upon Gusmão at their first meeting.

The workshops developed over time. Lapsley stresses that they are not quick fixes. There is no magical solution. But often the first step is the most difficult to take. While Lapsley began his work through the Trauma Centre of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, the Institute for Healing of Memories is now a separate entity. 'We have always sought to create a network of relationships across the world and to train people.'

The transformation from 'victim' to 'victor' is an enormous challenge. Michael Lapsley does not say the process is simple, but his life proves it is possible.

Institute for Healing of Memories

Michele GierckMichele Gierck is a writer, educator and public speaker.



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Existing comments

Thanks for a most inspiring, very thought-provoking article about a remarkable encounter.

ray lamerand | 02 April 2008  

Having read this article quickly yesterday, I read it again more reflectively today and found it inspiring and thought provoking. Thank you.

Maryrose Dennehy | 03 April 2008  

I too have attended Fr Michael Lapsley's workshop et al as part of the Wellsprings Centre's offerings (2008, Melbourne). What has not been mentioned in Michele's article is that, as part of restorative justice for Fr Michael, he has a person with him at all times to attend to tasks that he can either not do for himself or has to seek assistance with. This will continue for the remainder of Fr Michael's life. It is this facet of restorative justice that is so often absent or tokenistic in other people's experiences of violence against them. The notion of shared-responsibility is not well understood or appreciated in Australia ... no wonder our indigenous people suffer so ...

mary tehan | 06 May 2015  

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