Tuesday, 12 April 2005 00:00

Anglican priest keeps up the work of racial liberation

Published: Apr 12, 2005

Anglican priest keeps up the work of racial liberation

By Patrick O'Neill, Correspondent

CHAPEL HILL ‹ The names Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and martyr
Stephen Biko live on in South Africa, for they led the decades-long battle
to free that nation from the grip of the white minority. The struggle also
claimed the lives of thousands of martyrs, few of them with well-publicized

Others were left scarred for life, including the Rev. Michael Lapsley, a
white Anglican priest who on April 28, 1990, lost both his hands and one eye
when he opened a letter bomb concealed inside the pages of a religious

A New Zealand native, Lapsley was targeted by operatives within the
then-white South African government for his outspoken opposition to

Lapsley, 56, has used his experience to tell a story of one man¹s transition
from victim to survivor to victor. He spoke Sunday at United Church of
Chapel Hill as part of a benefit concert to support September 11th Families
for Peaceful Tomorrows, a peace group founded by family members of those
killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Greg McCallum, a local pianist and United Church member, performed at the

McCallum brought together the music of Italy, Spain, Poland, Norway, Japan,
Java, France, Russia, Rumania, Israel, Argentina, the Caribbean Islands and
the United States in what he called a ³World Quilt for Peace.²

McCallum said he was greatly moved by Lapsley¹s story.

³I felt like I was meeting a saint,² McCallum said of the priest, who uses
two steel-claw prosthetics where he once had hands. ³He¹s just an amazing
human being.²

During his five-day visit to the Triangle, Lapsley sold copies of ³Priest
and Partisan,² a book about his life that was written by Michael Worsnip.

In a forward to the book, Mandela, who met Lapsley after the bombing, wrote:
³This story constantly forces the reader to confront, through the intense
personal suffering, the suffering of so many people in our country and the
world beyond. . . . Michael¹s life journey represents a compelling metaphor:
We read about a foreigner who came to our country, and was transformed by
what he saw of the injustices of apartheid. He could not remain aloof from
the suffering of the people. In order to be true to himself, he had to
participate in their struggle for liberation.²

The soft-spoken Lapsley was assigned to South Africa in 1973, the same year
he was ordained. His life¹s story tells of his transformation from young
white priest of privilege to anti-apartheid activist.

In South Africa, Lapsley soon discovered he was entering a different world
in which people were segregated according to skin tones, and where a white
minority ruled with an iron fist.

³I sometimes feel that the day I arrived in South Africa, I stopped being a
human being and I became a white man,² he said.

Lapsley quickly discovered the extent of South Africa¹s segregation. The
post office had two entrances, one for ³whites only,² the other for
³non-whites.² At a restaurant, only whites could be served, but in a corner
of the restaurant a window allowed blacks to buy to-go orders.

In a government building, there were two elevators, one with a sign that
said, ³whites only,² the other elevator with a sign that said ³goods and

These early images basically summed up what apartheid was about, Lapsley
said. ³We who were white, were people, and they who were black, were like
parcels,² he said.

Even the beaches were segregated, Lapsley said. Whites, Indians and those of
mixed race had their own beaches, with ³the worst possible conditions²
reserved for Africans, those in the majority.

³Even the sea was racially divided,² he said.

Most disconcerting for Lapsley was the fact that the system called apartheid
claimed to be Christian.

A major turning point in Lapsley¹s life came in 1976, when the South African
government turned its guns against protesting children, killing more than

³The thing that shook my faith as a Christian was realizing that those who
shot children read the Bible every day, went to church on Sunday,² he said.
³That¹s shocking. How does a parent shoot a child unless racism has so
entered their souls that they didn¹t see the child? They saw something
black, not a child like their child.²

That experience also led Lapsley to abandon his strict Christian pacifist
position. In ³Priest and Partisan,² Lapsley speaks about the manipulation of
language. ³The term Œviolence¹ is reserved for the eventual response of the
oppressed to the oppression,² he wrote. ³When a black person takes a gun to
achieve rights which all civilized countries already enjoy, it is called
violence and terrorism, whilst the preservation of the status quo is called
the preservation of law and order.²

People read the Bible in the light of their own experience, Lapsley said.
³There are people who allege they read the Bible objectively; don¹t believe
them,² he said. ³We all read it according to what¹s happening in our lives.²

In 1976, Lapsley was expelled from South Africa for his political activity.
He lived for six years in Lesotho, a poor, small nation within South Africa
where Desmond Tutu was bishop.

³Suddenly all the passages in the Bible about exile had a whole new
meaning,² Lapsley said. ³By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we
remembered Zion. I was a priest in the liberation movement caring for people
in exile. I needed to be part of the struggle against apartheid.²

While living in exile, Lapsley remained an activist. In 1982, he relocated
to Zimbabwe, where he received the letter bomb. He opened a manila envelope
that contained two religious magazines.

³I opened the magazine, and they exploded,² Lapsley said. ³Ironically, it
was a government that claimed to be Christian that used religious magazines
to try to kill a priest.²

Although Lapsley believes someone in the South African government had sent
him the bomb, no one has never taken responsibility for the attack. The new
government did declare Lapsley ³a victim² and he received a financial
payment worth about $6,500.

After months of rehabilitation, Lapsley returned to the work of liberation.
Today, he leads the Institute for Healing of Memories, a Cape Town-based
trust that seeks to contribute to healing individuals, communities and

For McCallum, a man who uses his hands for his livelihood, meeting Lapsley
was also a lesson in survival.

³Being a pianist, to have someone there who lost their hands was very
profound,² McCallum said. ³My hands are my life. It¹s how I speak and
communicate, and he¹s such a warm, kind human being. I went to shake his
hand, and he only had those steel claws, so instead, he pulls you in and
hugs you. I was just very touched by his presence there.²