By Markus Williams
In Hastings New Zealand a light came into this world. Graced with all the attributes that is human Fr. Michael Lapsley would go on to become one of the greatest vessels of change this world has produced. From freedom fighter to healer he has become “A Light of Change”.
He was born the fifth of seven children in their large working class family. His father was a flower gardener who worked for the city creating beauty in their community while his mother was a quiet, unassuming person of deep faith. She showed her commitment to her faith in how she treated her family and in her dedication to their church. This faith was introduced to Michael as a child and has remained his constant evolving companion throughout his life.
His parents provided an atmosphere that acknowledged the human worth in all people even though they lived in a world that operated with a different philosophy. As a young boy Michael would have experiences that would teach him that not all lives matter especially if you were of the wrong race, socio economic class or religion. Out of this his moral compass would emerge. At the heart of the Christian Gospel we are called to act on behalf of human dignity with faith inspiring political action. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men and women do nothing”. For Fr. Michael social justice is and has always been a matter of faith.
His intimacy with spirituality was very evident as a boy in his teens. He was certainly more religious than his siblings and even served as altar boy at more than one church at the same time. By his own admission he did not always have an age- appropriate sense of his limits. In fact, sometimes he was quite obnoxious with his religiosity. After his priest told him he was too young to be confirmed or receive communion young Michael went back to that same priest and explained to him why he thought he was ready to partake of the rituals at the center of their faith. The priest recognized that this was not a battle he was going to win so he relented and Michael was confirmed.
His high school years were difficult as he did not identify with his adolescent peers and he wanted to join a religious order. Sadly for him none would accept him at his age. He spent much of his time in the library where he would discover the ideas of pacifism and non-violence through the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Because of his readings he knew he was on the right side of history when at the age of 13 he refused to participate in the required military training. It did not match the picture of humanity that was emerging in his head even at his young age. After high school his life journey would take him to Australia to begin his training as a priest at the Society of Sacred Mission. In 1971 he was ordained and became a professed member of the SSM and this was followed by orders to serve in South Africa. This would begin a life long association with a country that would forever change his life.
Upon his arrival, the disease of hatred, manifested through apartheid, was a confrontation everywhere his eyes landed. As he entered the post office to send his parents a letter informing them of his safe arrival he noticed the two entrances….one white…..and one black. He was soon introduced to other laws celebrating this prevalent disease. In addition to signs for black and white there were signs for people of Indian descent, mixed race and many others. Black Africans had to carry a passport 24 hours a day and their curfew prevented them from being out at will. Violation of these laws resulted in prison time at best and torture or murder at worst.
Father Michael found himself at a crossroads, should he continue to behave like a human being or should he adopt the values and attitudes of the white minority and even some of his fellow priest. He decided he could not kill his conscience and sit on the fence, he strongly believed that the relationship between faith and justice could not be denied. He began to speak out loudly against the injustice and he denounced the brutality of the South African Government. He was fully committed to the liberation struggle even while some in the SSM were uncomfortable with what they regarded as “provocative” behavior. As more and more people rejected the apartheid system the government increased their brutality even to the point of killing school children. Fr. Michael would find himself in a crisis of faith. He had always believed in nonviolence both as a tactic as well as a way of life. After a long inner struggle he found himself in agreement with the African National Conference and their tactic of bearing arms. Nonviolence becomes most problematic when the oppressed in no way recognizes the humanity of the oppressed. The ANC armed struggle was in response to extreme provocation and was against an oppressive system and not a racial group. It was not a decision that was made with ease.
Father Michael was elected National University Chaplain and he used his platform to travel widely speaking out against the killing, torture and detention of students. The government was not happy with the attention he was bringing to the issues so as a result, he was expelled from the country. Never considering a return to the land of his birth New Zealand, Father Michael went to live in Lesotho. There he would become a full member of the ANC serving as its chaplain even while living in exile. He traveled extensively mobilizing the faith community to oppose the apartheid system and support the liberation struggle. His activities made members of the SSM community and the church hierarchy increasingly uncomfortable, and so again he was expelled, this time from Lesotho and his religious community the SSM.
On April 28, 1990, the eve of peace negotiations with Nelson Mandela, a tired Father Michael sat down in his living room having returned from a farewell party celebrating his leaving for Bulawayo. He reached over to a pile of neglected mail and picked up a large manila envelope from South Africa. Inside he found two religious magazines each wrapped in plastic, one in Afrikaans and one in English. As he peeled the plastic away he completed the circuit and the bomb went off. He immediately entered a world of silence, darkness and extreme pain. There was major destruction all around him but in its center there was life and there was God. Anything that is life threatening is life changing. He now had new credentials in his new reality. Without his hands he touched more people and with limited physical sight he was able to see more clearly. He could now help people in ways he never could with his full physical attributes.
After a long road to recovery he would be one of many to testify before the truth and reconciliation committee, and he would start his work with victims of torture and trauma even as he was a victim himself. In 1998 he started The Institute for Healing of Memories. This organization with a presence in South Africa and the US works with victims of political violence, those infected with HIV and AIDS, refugees, prisoners and war veterans. As Desmond Tutu says “He has become a marvelous advocate for healing and reconciliation”. His life is captured in the book “Redeeming the Past”.
We celebrate you Fr. Michael Lapsley. As a freedom fighter and as a healer you are a light of change.