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Sunday, 12 September 2010 18:59

THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH AND HoM WORKSHOPS: Speech, South African Council of Churches Conference

South African Council of Churches Conference - 5th July 1995

The role of the Church and the 'Healing of Memories' Workshops

Fr. Michael Lapsley,

Chaplain to the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town

Thank you very much. I want to talk a little about the kind of work that I am doing, particularly as it relates to this gathering. And I also want to tell a little bit of the story that I never tell. I have told my story, as many of you know, many times in this country, but I never really tell the story of my experience of the Church. That is a story which I don't think I have ever told from a public platform, and I want to share a little bit of that today. As Anglicans. I think we have a much more checkered history than we are willing to admit and it's full of contradictions of which we are rightly very deeply proud, and a lot of other things of which we should be very deeply and profoundly ashamed. 

One of the reasons I wanted to come to this conference and I want to say it now more than anything else, is that I want my Church to go to the Truth Commission. In its testimony it must speak of that which is proud as well as that of which it is ashamed; it should be the whole story, the whole reality. 

But let me just relate very briefly a few very small incidents. Many of you will know that I was not born in South Africa. I came to South Africa in 1973. The very first day I arrived here I met some white Anglicans and I said to them "Do black people go to your Church?" (This was in Johannesburg.) And they said, "Yes, and you know they're very good, they always sit at the back." That was day one. 

I went to live in Durban where I was a university student and a university chaplain. I remember on one occasion going to a evening service in an Anglican church in the centre of Durban. I went with a young Zulu friend, and another priest, a member of the same community, the religious order that I belong to, asked me to leave with this friend in the middle of the service,. He said, "Can't you see that you are not welcome, can't you see that its not acceptable to be here with a black person?" 

I remember going to my community which has been working in the Free State since 1902, and after mass one of my brothers coming to me and saying that he was upset that I had prayed during the intercessions at Mass for somebody who was detained. He said, "We don't have those sorts of prayers here." 

I was expelled from South Africa in 1976 and it took 16 years before I returned. I lived in Lesotho first and then in Zimbabwe. Just a couple of incidents from Lesotho, and I think its good to remember some of these things. In 1979 or 1980, (I can't quite remember the exact date). Archbishop Bill Burnett said on behalf of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa that we were totally opposed to the programme to combat racism and the special fund of the World Council of Churches. Two of us, the other person is now Bishop John Osmers, bishop in our church in north eastern Zambia, wrote an open letter to the Archbishop asking him never ever again to say that the whole of the Anglican Church was opposed to the programme to combat racism because we supported it. And we supported the special fund. It's important to remember our own Church's position because often it is held up as the anti-apartheid church. Like the SACC, if resolutions were that by which we should be judged, we were the anti-apartheid church. But the Anglican Church in Namibia said to the Church of the Province in Southern Africa, "We do not want you to send chaplains with the South African Defence Force into our territory. We consider you to be an army of occupation." The Anglican Church never ever accepted that position by the Namibian Church and it continued to send chaplains to the South African Defence Force and never ever stopped. 

The Anglican Church never formally sent chaplains to the liberation movements. They never asked to do so and they never provided them. Some of us were Anglican priests, were members of the ANC, were chaplains of the ANC, and never once did a bishop of the Church tell us that what we were doing had the blessing of our Church.

In 1982 there was a massacre in Maseru and forty-two people were shot dead. I was away from Lesotho. When I returned, I was met at the airport by the bishop and by the members of my order who asked, "Didn't you get the letter to say that you were not supposed to come back?" And I said, "No, I didn't get the letter." I was then told I would not be allowed to return to my house although I was chaplain at the university. I lived for about two and a half months as a homeless person, sleeping in a different bed every night. I began to wonder whether I was the enemy or whether apartheid was the enemy. I began to feel a tiny little bit of perhaps what Jewish people experienced in Germany. Was the problem that you had Jewish people living next door to you, or was the problem nazism? It all seemed to be the opposite way round. 

The Church said I must leave Lesotho. Their argument seemed to be that if I stayed there the SADF would return, and they seemed to be concerned that the SADF were not able to shoot straight. They said it would be okay if I died, but they thought that some of them might get hit. I thought they had more of a commitment to the afterlife than I did. I left Lesotho. The members of my own religious order moved formally that I should be expelled from my Order on the grounds that I was a terrorist. They also moved that the superior of my order should forbid me to set foot on the continent of Africa. By this time I was living in Zimbabwe and they said that my very existence in Zimbabwe was a threat to their security in the Free State. They weren't very good with geography!

That was a little of my experience of our Church and of my own community. Of course, there is another side of the story. There is the story of people of faith and hope within South Africa, within the front-line states and within the world from whom I experienced great support, but I want both parts of the story to be known as part of the truth of our past. I get worried with some of these submissions that are coming forward where Church people are saying, "We're sorry for the things that we have done, but of course we had nothing to do with death and murder." I am beginning to ask the question, "But who were those troops in the townships, who were those troops on the border, who were those police? Were they not members of our congregations?" So in fact we weren't just involved in the theology of apartheid, we were involved in the practice of apartheid and the death and the destruction, and that is our story as well as the story of our resistance.

I received a letter bomb in April 1990 on the eve of the first talks between the government and the ANC. I think I was the target of a letter bomb because I had become a personal focus of evil. I was not simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they specifically want to kill me. Because I had travelled the world in the cause of the struggle against apartheid, I was known around the world. But when I was bombed I became the focus of all that is beautiful in the human community. The ability to be tender, loving, generous, compassionate was the vehicle that God used to enable me to make my bombing redemptive and to bring the life out of the death, good out of the evil. Whilst I received expert medical care both in Zimbabwe and Australia, it was the prayers, love and support of both religious people and people who are not religious, people of faith and hope around the world, who enabled me to transform that situation. I also realised that if I was filled with hatred, bitterness, self-pity, anger and desire for revenge, that I would be a victim forever. Today I am neither a victim or a survivor. I am a victor over all that apartheid has done. It was from that experience that I realised that my calling was to return to South Africa, to be part of the process of the healing of the nation and to walk beside others as they too walk their journey. 

If I could just say one word about forgiveness. I want to say to us Christians that we must be very careful about how we use that word. I think we use it too easily, too cheaply, too glibly, and that sometimes we even, unwittingly, make it a weapon with which we further victimize victims, telling them that they must forgive and not allowing them their anger. Sometimes as Christians we try and suppress the deepest feelings our people have and we don't allow them to admit that actually we are Christians but we have also feelings of hatred. We have feelings of revenge. We have feelings of bitterness. We have feelings of great anger. We do our people a disservice if we do not allow those feelings to be expressed, because only when we own them and acknowledge them and work through them, can we have the possibility of letting them go. Perhaps in that process the possibility of forgiveness arises, but let us be careful not to blame those who say, "I cannot forgive." Let us be very careful about that. Just rather love them and respect them.

There is a programme that I am involved now in the Western Cape with the Religious Response to the Truth Commission and nationally, with the South African Council of Churches together with Fr. Gary Thompson. The programme is one which we call 'Healing of the Memories' workshops and I would like to commend them to you. It consists of a three-day workshop where we give people the space, opportunity and the permission to work through the apartheid years, and to work through the three big questions that every South African needs to confront; what I did, what was done to me, and what I failed to do, and to look at the role of faith.

We've been conducting these workshops all over South Africa and one of the things that I have found again and again, and I need to say this, is that often the deepest pain that people have experienced has been from the Church. We have to begin to acknowledge that. We see this process as a parallel process to that of the Truth Commission. I don't know how many stories it's going to hear. Is it 10 000, 20 000 or is it 50 000? I believe that every South African has been messed up by apartheid. Every South African has a story to tell, every South African needs to be given the permission, the space, to tell his or her story and often in a collective way. We are doing a little bit here, when we begin, and I think Beyers made a point eloquently this morning, when he said that when we are exposed to each other's humanity, we change each other. 

Often in our workshop we try and bring people of different sides of the apartheid experience together, and as people are confronted by the humanity of each other, so people can begin to change. We can tell you more about the workshops at another time, but we also want to say that we also use creative methods. We get people to draw their stories, we give people clay to create something. Often it is not just with our tongues but it's also for those of us who still have hands, (with our hands we can draw, create things) that we are able to get in touch with our deepest feelings and begin to leave behind that which is evil in our past and take with us into the future that which is life-giving.

Thank you very much.