The Common Good

Fr. Michael Lapsley’s 'Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer'

Most Americans sat glued to the TV or radio on April 15 (or raced to finish tax returns) transfixed by the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath. Nearly 100 friends of Fr. Michael Lapsley’s gathered that evening at Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore in Washington, D.C., to be soothed with a testimony of faith by South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, soul-stirring cello music, and a transporting testimony of healing by apartheid regime bomb victim “Father Mike.”

Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer
Fr. Michael Lapsley's Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer

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One of my favorite newspapers in the world, the South African Mail and Guardian, reported on April 19 this way: 

“Boston bombings: the marathon struggle of survival and healing … a priest from South Africa, apartheid fighter and a bomb victim himself reaches out to Americans about forgiveness … He had not planned it that way. The event was to launch his book. It had been scheduled for last October but Hurricane Sandy scuppered those plans. Instead it took place on a day when three people were killed and more than 100 injured in Boston.”

Those of us who knew Father Lapsley before his brush with violent near death have been stunned by the transformation in his life and spirit. When he was the chaplain to the African National Congress’s military arm, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, we remember him in Zimbabwean exile as a tough, impatient, and very militant anti-apartheid warrior who had given up nonviolence for whatever action it took to end the tyranny. In a word, he was uncomfortable to be with. To know him today is to rejoice in how, as taught by St. Paul, “suffering is for the salvation and hope of others.” He travels and lectures around the world to bring, with incredible sweetness, the redemptive healing teachings of forgiveness to bear on trauma that war and other violent actions wrack in the human spirit and body. To see him gesture with the hooks that have replaced his hands is enough to join the movement to spread the message of his Institute for the Healing of Memories.

He quotes 1960 Nobel Laureate Chief Albert Lutuli, as saying “victims of abuse think that they become human by victimizing others.” Lapsley shared on April 15 he is convinced that, instead, forgiveness frees the victim to be a healer. He prays his reflections in body and words about his own healing will affect our souls and inspire us to not victimize others. Becoming a victim has led him to deep listening with heart as well as ears to the poor and oppressed. He states the reason to visit South Africa is for us to understand the U.S. better and begin a journey of treating our enemies differently. He speaks of the long imprisonment of the Cuban five, the death penalty, homeless war veterans — wounded and then forgotten — and the increasing impact of our economy on the poor in America.

As Ambassador Rasool said, “It is ironic that we are here today to talk about healing and reconciliation on the day that a bomb has gone off.” Rasool, a faithful Muslim, said he despaired of any faith that “tells people they can die for a cause without knowing how to live for it … when you can label people without engaging them.”

Fr. Mike’s frequent host in D.C. is Ms. Jennifer Davis, the South African former head of the American Committee on Africa, herself a leader in the anti-apartheid struggle. She speaks with poignancy about WWII concentration camps and, how as a Jew, she learned when it was said, “never again, we meant really never again would we allow such things to happen to any other people. Not just Jewish people.”

Lapsley still does not know who sent him the two Christian magazines wired with the explosives in 1990 three months after Nelson Mandela was released. The sad irony of the story not shared in the book is the letter to him preceding the bomb indicated the sender was posting two magazines “sure to be an inspiration.” The letter was signed, “Sincerely your brother in Christ.”

Lapsley’s book Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer is available now.

Tom Getman is a former Hill staffer and World Vision executive who spends three months a year in Southern Africa.

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