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Priest draws hope from hurting

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Father Michael Lapsley


»  The bomb that blew off the hands of Episcopal priest Michael Lapsley was in a thick magazine, not a parcel. An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Lapsley received a package. More details can be found at healing-memories.org.


Father Michael Lapsley, maimed by a mail bomb for his protests of apartheid in South Africa, says he is more of a priest with no hands than if he had two hands.

"One of my primary qualities is I’ve got no hands. It gives me a point of entry to others," Lapsley said in an interview here Monday. "Nobody says to me, ‘You don’t know what pain is,’ though frequently pain is more invisible than not. In that sense it’s an asset — it gives us an avenue of connection. The sharing of pain connects us at the deepest level of common humanity."

Lapsley was living in exile in Zimbabwe in April 1990 when a package to him exploded. It blew his hands off, shattered his eardrums and destroyed the sight in one eye. The Episcopalian priest said he had been targeted by the South African government for his global activism against the racist policy of apartheid, which was abolished by 1993.

Lapsley, who said on his website that he "traveled the journey from being a freedom fighter to being a healer," is in Hawaii listening to the stories of female inmates and talking with students and members of the Judiciary, churches and the Hawaii Forgiveness Project.

Linda Rich, who organized his visit with fellow Church of the Crossroads member Liz Nelson, said, "We saw that people here, as everywhere, are hungry for hope and healing and justice."

This weekend he is leading a Healing of Memories workshop at St. Anthony Retreat Center in Kalihi Valley. As part of his worldwide ministry through the Institute for Healing of Memories, he shares his journey from being a victim to a victor and tries to help free those who are "prisoners of their own history," he said.

Lapsely, 61, is a native of New Zealand who moved to South Africa in 1973 and took up the cause to overturn apartheid. In 1998 he formed the Institute for Healing of Memories, which is an outgrowth of his work as a chaplain of the Trauma Center for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, South Africa, following the ending of apartheid.

Lapsley’s path to recovery from his wounds has been neither smooth nor straight, and he says he is no "plastic saint" who pretends not to succumb to self-pity and frustration over his disabilities from time to time. (The bomb blast also left him with impaired hearing — "I can only hear when you say nice things to me," he jokes.)

"There were moments that I thought, maybe it would be better to be dead," he said. "The healing journey is a zigzagging road — two steps forward, two steps backward."

It is punctuated with unexpected flashes of vulnerability, little things that stab him in the heart, like the look of horror on someone’s face upon seeing his artificial hands — hooks with which he can grasp things. He will always need an aide to help him. Grief over the permanent loss of his hands is the strongest of his emotions. "It affects every single part of your life every single day," he said.

His focus, as a victor, is to bring redemption to his life and to help others do the same.

"How do we bring good out of evil and find what is life-giving out of loss? Take something out of horror and turn it into something beautiful?" he said. "Part of being a victor is to live life as fully, and joyfully and as completely as possible. If I were filled with hatred and bitterness, then I would be a victim forever, because they would have killed my soul."

Those who have been traumatized are often burdened with advice that comes across as "cheap, simple and glib," he said, when the very idea of forgiveness is incomprehensible. And it’s common, after a loved one dies, for people to "tell you to get over it and move on when the body’s hardly cold. … Often it’s more important to embrace them and acknowledge their pain. Don’t come up with some glib, clip answers as to what they should do," he said.

"Sometimes you have to feel an emotion to its fullest before you can let go of it, but sometimes a (workshop) facilitator or someone who means well will intervene too quickly, because they can’t handle the emotion, and try to make everything better right away. You have to say, let me be weak for a while; then I’ll become strong."

Lapsley said a Healing of Memories workshop gives people a chance to share their pain fully, without advice or judgment.

"It’s not magic. We don’t give them a certificate of healing when it’s over. They are just sharing in a safe and sacred space. This can be life-changing."

Lapsley said in the process of reconciliation, he believes in reparation and justice far more than punishment of those who do harm. In his case, "I still have no hands," so if the perpetrators of the bomb were ever found, they could make up for it by assisting him the rest of his life or working at a hospital, he said.

And where is God in this? Lapsley said he believes "in a God who accompanies us, who feels our pain, not in one who can deliver us from it. If I am angry with God, then I must believe that God did this, and God doesn’t send bombs."

"Our faith has treasures within it that can help us enormously to deal with the human journey of pain and suffering. But it would be foolish to say only religious people can heal, as agnostics and atheists can find their own way of healing. I say that’s God; it’s the way the spirit moves."

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