Father Michael Lapsley: “Every Story Needs a Listener”

Father Michael Lapsley: “Every Story Needs a Listener”

Aurora Community member Father Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest, social justice activist, a participant of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories (IHOM). The Institute contributes to the lasting individual and collective healing that makes a more peaceful and just future possible. Created in 1998, IHOM is now a global network with offices in South Africa, Luxembourg, and New York.

His activism caused Father Michael to face numerous challenges. In 1976, he was expelled from South Africa and moved to Lesotho and later, to Zimbabwe, where he became a victim of a bomb-letter. The explosion took his both hands and the sight in one eye. 

After a long recovery, he returned to South Africa, determined to dedicate his life to helping victims of emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds inflicted by war, human rights abuses, and other traumatic circumstances. We talked to Father Michael about his journey from a victim to a survivor and a victor, his views on modern humanitarian needs, and the Institute for Healing of Memories.

In one of your interviews, you said that you “did travel further, going from victim to survivor, to victor.” Can you tell us a bit more about your story to help us understand where your inspiration and strength come from?

In 1973, my congregation transferred me to South Africa where I suddenly stopped being a human being and became a white man. The reality hit me. I could decide to be against racism, against apartheid, but I was still a beneficiary of it. I joined the liberation struggle and after 3,5 years, I was expelled from South Africa. I went to live in Lesotho where I joined the liberation movement, the African National Congress. My work in the liberational struggle was pastoral, educational, theological, caring for people in exile. Then I went to live in Zimbabwe. 

It was 1990 when I received a letter-bomb, three months after Mandela was released. That’s the way I lost my hands, my eye and got other injuries. People across the globe prayed for me, loved me, supported me, acknowledged me, acknowledged what had been done to me. And that’s what helped me to travel the journey from victim to survivor, to victor. 

I mean victor in the sense of taking back the ability to help to shape and create the world, to no longer to be an object of history, but a subject of it. People have inspired me. I was conscious that in South Africa generations before me, going back centuries, had suffered and sacrificed, but also hoped and dreamed of a better world, even though in their lives, their own, certain things got worse. But they were still there to hope, to dream, to struggle, to sacrifice. 

More than 20 years ago, you founded the Institute for Healing of Memories. What is the main principle of your work? And how has it changed during these years? 

The Institute came as a response to my reflection of what helped me to heal, not just physically, but in an emotional, psychological way. And I talk about how people listen to my story, how they acknowledge my story. When I came back to South Africa after 16 years away, I discovered that we were a damaged nation. All of us have a story to tell, but unlike me, for many South Africans, no one had listened to their stories, nobody had acknowledged their pain. 

In 1995-1996, we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way for the nation to deal with its past. 23,000 people came to the Commission, but we had a nation of 55 million. My question always was: “What about everybody else’s story? What happened to them?” So, the Institute for Healing of Memories began as a parallel process to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was already 25 years ago. 

We are not just focusing on apartheid; we are focusing on how the past of the nation has affected an individual. In 1998, we were already invited to three countries. One was Rwanda, four years after the Genocide there. We also were invited to the New York City. Many of the people there who participated in the civil rights movement never had an opportunity to speak about their pain. What began to happen was that what we have been doing was resonating with people in the world, wherever there has been a war, oppression, and injustice. We began to see that healing memories were relevant to the whole human family. 

Having worked through these years, we have two dominant narratives: one is childhood trauma, and the other is gender-based violence. As I said, in our work we focus on the emotional, psychological, spiritual part, and our motto is: “All people have a story to tell. And every story needs a listener.” We also say that all people are spiritual beings. Not everybody is religious, but all the people have a spirituality. We also believe that all people share responsibility for the past and all people have a part to play in creating a different kind of future. 

– How has the global humanitarian world and needs changed during these decades of your activity? What kind of tendencies do you see now? 

COVID-19, the pandemic, has laid bare a number of realities that were there. One of those key things is the vulnerability of the whole human family. The world should have realized that weapons of mass destruction were of no value when fighting the pandemic. Countries could spend their money, all budget, on arms, but it didn’t help to fight pandemic at all. 

The other is that mother nature is crying, because of what we are doing. People say that it would survive, but we may not. Another area that came out with pandemic is that gender-based violence had increased sharply across the world. The importance of addressing this has never been as acute as it is today. 

Aurora supports modern-day heroes like yourself, highlighting their vital work on the ground. What does being part of this community mean to you and how can others help you as well? 

We have gifts to give each other. It’s never a one-way street. We are keen to learn from the experiences of other members of the Aurora Community, because there is no other community that has this kind of range. 

Like all other NGOs, we are scrambling for funding to survive and to continue to do our work. The possibility of those partners who would be interested in providing support for our work is also very important. We are developing a program across the African continent. We began with nine countries. But there are 54 countries in the continent. And step by step, we want to develop our work across the continent. So, the possibility of being a partner of those who are doing work in Africa is something very exciting.