Healing without hands

Published February 6, 2012

Father Michael Lapsley
Photo: Vianney Carriere

An Anglican priest and social justice activist from South Africa has urged faith communities in Canada to “seize the moment” and take an active part in the public hearings of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The experience will be transformative and “life-giving,” says Fr. Michael Lapsley, executive director of the Institute for Healing of Memories (HOM) in Cape Town.

Acknowledgment is “a key first step to healing,” says Lapsley, who knows personally about facing “the horror of what happened” and moving from being a victim to becoming a “victor.”

In 1990, while he was living in exile in Zimbabwe, a letter bomb sandwiched between religious magazines blew up in his face. Lapsley lost both his hands, the sight in one eye and a significant amount of hearing.

To this day, he insists the experience was redemptive. “I was prayed for. I was loved. I was supported,” he told the Anglican Journal, adding that he learned that to get beyond mere survival, you have to transform pain into compassion “for others who travel similar journeys.”

Lapsley, who was born in New Zealand and ordained to the priesthood in Australia, visited Canada last November at the invitation of the diocese of Edmonton. He also travelled to Niagara Falls, Ont., and met with the House of Bishops at its fall meeting. Following this, he met with staff at the United Church of Canada as well as staff at the Anglican Church of Canada, both in Toronto. All wanted to learn from his experience in healing and reconciliation.

Lapsley, who arrived in Durban, South Africa, in 1973, at the height of apartheid, says he dealt with his own “white man’s guilt” by becoming one of apartheid’s most prominent critics. When he was expelled in 1976, he went to neighbouring Lesotho, where he became chaplain-in-exile for the African National Congress. After returning to South Africa in 1992, he worked with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and became chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town.

Lapsley says that those who suggest victims should just “get over it and move on” must realize that healing is a long-term project. In the case of collective abuse, healing can take generations. The issue boils down to political will, says Lapsley. South Africa is still working toward national reconciliation, he points out, and failure to institute TRC recommendations, such as imposing a wealth tax on those who profited from apartheid, has left some feeling “embittered, frustrated and angry. We slayed one monster, but we kept another one intact.” Today, South Africa has overtaken Brazil in having the world’s highest level of income inequality.

Lapsley notes a “startling parallel” between the behaviour of the dominant culture in South Africa after apartheid, and that of Canada, where the issue of residential schools is simply not on the radar of many Canadians. When the TRC was created in South Africa, “it was as if we held a giant mirror in front of the nation…but white people turned off the radio and TV and didn’t read the newspapers,” says Lapsley.

He also sees similarities in that many victims of abuse are now incarcerated, having morphed into victimizers themselves. In Canada, he points out, the number of aboriginal people who are incarcerated is increasing and should sound “alarm bells for the whole nation.” And in fact, statistics from Correctional Service Canada bear this out. Incarceration rates for aboriginal people are five or six times higher than the national average. And while aboriginal people represent only 2.8 per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 18 per cent of those serving federal prison sentences.

Canadian Christians need to take “the long-term perspective” and ask themselves, “What is God’s plan for Canada?” advises Lapsley. “What is God’s dream for indigenous people and for the Christian faith?” Faith communities can contribute to the healing process by creating “safe spaces,” where people can “absolutely and truly hear each other’s pain” and listen with respect, he says.

People not only need to listen to the voices of victims, they also need to talk about issues of denial and ignorance and the role of guilt and shame, adds Lapsley. “It’s not an accident that the German people didn’t talk about the Holocaust.”


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