News Updates

BEYOND THE RAMP : Keynote speech, Australian Conference on Spirituality and Disability

BEYOND THE RAMP : Keynote speech, Australian Conference on Spirituality and Disability


Adelaide 7-10 May 1998
Exploring the spiritual dimensions of disability

Keynote speech

Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM


For the grand finale of this evening, it is my pleasure to introduce to you Fr. Michael 
Lapsley. Michael is a real citizen of this world. He was born in New Zealand, he then 
trained here in South Australia as an Anglican priest at St. Michael's at Mount Lofty 
(and most of you will know that that was burnt down after he left - I'm not sure what 
we make out of that), but then after training as a priest here in South Australia, he 
went to work in South Africa. As I have already said, Michael now works as the 
Chaplain to the Trauma Centre for the Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape 
Town, South Africa.

That task sees Michael moving around South Africa, and indeed, around the world. I 
heard Michael say yesterday as part of an interview, that because of what that 
country has experienced during the years of apartheid, the Trauma Centre has a 
potential forty million clients. And so Michael moves around from Cape Town to 
various centres around South Africa conducting workshops, particularly focusing on 
the healing of memories. He also is called to conduct similar workshops in other 
parts of the world.

Michael is here to help us work through some of those issues, the healing of 
memories, reconciliation and restorative justice. And ladies and gentlemen, we are 
privileged to have Michael amongst us and I invite you to welcome him. Thank you, 

My sisters and brothers, thank you to the L'Ache community for showing us 
something of the heart of the human family, and in so doing, showing us something of 
the heart of God. 

It is more than a year since I was first approached about the possibility of coming to 
this second national conference on Spirituality and Disability. It is true that I get 
invited to many countries and to speak in many different situations, but I don't think 
there was ever a title that has captured my imagination more than the whole 
relationship between spirituality and disability. I have looked forward greatly to 
coming and I would like to congratulate the organisers for daring to organise this 
conference. I would also like to congratulate ourselves for daring to come. I don't 
know whether you would be willing to give yourselves a clap? One of the things about 
having no hands is that you sometimes have to ask other people to do things for you, 
and that includes clapping. 

I must say that I am looking forward to listening to your stories and your journeys and 
from hearing from as many of you as possible what you have learned and what you 
have discovered about the spiritual dimensions of disability. Indeed, I am sorry that we 
couldn't stay at this conference long enough for every one of us to tell and to listen 
and to begin to hear the common themes, but also to begin to hear the uniqueness. 

When Elizabeth was opening the conference I couldn't help remembering when she 
spoke of not wanting to hear about toilets in the next life, of going to a conference in 
Johannesburg, at a brand new Christian conference centre. I arrived late in the evening 
and they looked more than unusually pleased to see me when I arrived. I couldn't work 
out what their glee was. They announced very proudly, after the welcome, that they 
had a special disability suite, and without me being able to say anything, they marched 
me off to occupy their brand new, virgin, disability suite. So we arrived there and I 
looked around, and it seemed to be a very normal kind of room. There was a bed and 
chair and a wardrobe, nothing particular related to disability. They took me into the 
bathroom, and the one thing that was different about the bathroom, was that it had a 
hand held shower! They were very annoyed that I didn't want to stay in their disability 
suite, and said, "Would you mind taking me to another room."

Tonight I would like to tell you a little of my journey and what I have learned about 
spirituality and disability in the course of my own journey. As Elizabeth has alluded, 
the context for me of experiencing major physical disability, was the war against 
apartheid and the struggle for national liberation - apartheid which had been declared 
by the human family to be a crime against humanity and by the Christian family to be a 
heresy or false doctrine. 

It is just over eight years ago at my home in Zimbabwe where I lived as part of the 
community of South African exiles, since I received in the post two religious 
magazines, posted from South Africa, one in Afrikaans, one in English. When I 
opened the English magazine, it was the detonating device for a bomb so powerful that 
the ceiling in three rooms went out, and there was a hole in the floor. I remember that 
night. I did not lose consciousness. I did not go into shock. I remember the pain, pain 
of a scale that I don't think a human being should have to endure. But I also 
remember the presence of God with me in my crucifixion. Somehow, God's promise 
had been kept to me, the great promise of the Christian scriptures, not a promise that 
we will not suffer, but the promise, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the 
age." And there was God, accompanying me in my pain. I felt that Mary, the mother 
of Jesus, who had watched her son being crucified, understood my pain. I remember 
at the hospital while waiting for treatment, asking a friend of mine who was a bit of a 
retired catholic, to pray with me, and being a retired catholic, we said the Lord's 
prayer together. She stumbled through it and she got to the words "but deliver us 
from evil". Of course in the bad old days they used to stop there. But I felt the need 
to go on "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever." In 
those first minutes, first hours, first days, I was taken back to a faith learned in 
childhood in all its simplicity. 

But I would not want to be heard to being a triumphalist Christian. At this stage in the 
twentieth century, I would not like to be among those who would claim that those of 
us who follow Christianity have a monopoly on human wisdom, or an understanding of 
who God is. But that was my tradition and I went to its depths. 

I had lost both my hands, I had lost an eye. Initially I was completely in darkness. I 
had injuries, burns, scars, broken bones all over me. One of the things that had 
happened was that I had lost my sense of smell. In relation to that, they brought a 
medical expert and he took a good look at me and he said, "Well, either your sense of 
smell will come back or it won't." He was correct. 

I did wonder for a short time if it would have been better to have died. Because my 
question to myself was, "Would life be life in any meaningful sense?" I had never met 
another human being with no hands. I didn't have any role models. I knew a friend 
who had lost one hand, but somehow losing two was not twice as bad but 200 times as 
bad. I must confess that there was a small voice, not a dominant voice, but a small 
voice within me that asked the question, "Was this punishment for my sins?" 
Fortunately that was not the dominant voice.

I believe that by becoming the recipient of a letter bomb I had become a focus of evil in 
the world. I think it is evil to make and create and send letter bombs to other human 
beings; to type an address on an envelope that you know is designed to kill someone. I 
have often asked the question, "I wonder what that woman or man said at the dinner 
table that night when their children or their loved ones, said, 'What did you do 
today?'" And so yes, a focus of evil. For fourteen years before I received that bomb, I 
had travelled the world in the cause of the struggle against apartheid, and met many 
people across the globe. When I was bombed I became the focus of all that is beautiful 
in the human family: our ability to be tender, loving, generous, kind, compassionate. 
In some ways I feel that when I die I really won't have to have a funeral because 
people said all the nice things then. It is really, I suspect, quite a bit nicer to have it 
said whilst alive rather than on the other side. 

I remember particularly the role that children played in my healing. Children from two 
countries, from Australia and from Canada, wrote to me, sent me pictures and 
drawings; children, some of whom I had met in Canada the previous year. Australian 
children whom I had never met, wrote. People of faith and people of no religious faith, 
sent me messages of prayer and love and support. That was the vehicle that God used 
to enable me to make my bombing redemptive, to bring the life out of the death, to 
bring the good out of the evil. 

I realised that if I was consumed by hatred and bitterness and self-pity and desire for 
revenge, then I would be victim for ever. They would have failed to kill the body but 
they would have killed the soul. This love and support from around the world enabled 
me to walk the journey from being a victim to being a survivor, to being a victor. I was 
able to say to myself that the struggle for me now is a struggle to get well, the struggle 
to return, to struggle to live my life as completely as fully as possible. That would be 
my victory. 

I was in hospital first for a month in Zimbabwe and then I spent six months in two 
Australian hospitals in Sydney. The only person that was really unhelpful was the 
hospital chaplain. He asked me one day, "Do you think you upset the South African 
government?" You never think of the right words to say at the time, but as a friend 
said I should have replied "I bloody well hope so". Then another day he said to me, 
"Of course, opinion is divided about apartheid." I said, "Yes, it is. The international 
community says its a crime against humanity. The international Christian community 
says its a heresy. Then there are those who support it." He never came back. I was in 
a ward where people stayed mostly for three to five days. I stayed three months, so 
we became quite good friends, and I remember one day the sister coming in and saying 
to me, "You really are being rather difficult today. If you don't behave we'll call the 
chaplain." The ultimate threat! 

So many people from around the world were quite wonderful. But if I can say 
something tough. In some ways, the Church could cope with me as a victim more than 
it could as a freedom fighter. And maybe there are parallels for those of us within the 
disability community. When we stand and struggle for justice and when we ask for 
solidarity, some people find us difficult and they can cope with us better if we just 
remain as victims when we can be patted on the head and felt sorry for.

One of the things that helped me, an image that came into my head when I was in 
hospital, was of a picture that I had once seen within the tradition of the Orthodox 
Church; it is a picture of Jesus with one leg shorter than the other. Its a picture that 
picks up the image of Isaiah, of the saviour as one who is disfigured and not beautiful 
to look at, the one from whom some are physically repelled, the very opposite of the 
western Jesus, the perfect, white male body, the body that nobody has, except perhaps 
in Hollywood. I certainly began to reflect from that moment as one of the people who 
came to disability in such a dramatic way, that disability is actually the norm of the 
human family, the imperfection the incompleteness, some areas of brokenness is the 
actual human experience that the whole human family knows in some parts of its life. 

I remember a call that came one day when I was in hospital here in Sydney. It was 
from a friend of mine who had also been living in exile for many years, and he had just 
returned to South Africa for his first visit in 1990. He had bumped across a discussion 
in Cape Town about the possibility of a trauma centre for victims of violence and 
torture being set up. He phoned me and said, "There's a job that you could do, to 
work in such a centre." Now, at that time people were saying to me, "You've got no 
hands. You must accept what you cannot now do. You used to get on planes and 
travel the world. That day has come to an end. Accept limitation." Here was 
somebody who said to me, "Here, you are more qualified, you have an advantage." 

In fact I went back to South Africa, not to that job, (I came to that a year later) but it 
helped in my process of healing. I think that was my first realisation that in the bomb I 
had lost a lot. I had lost hands that I will always grieve for, but I still had a lot, and I 
had also gained immeasurably. 

After seven months in Australia I returned to Zimbabwe and I went back to see the 
bishop of my church who had been about to employ me two days after I was bombed. 
This particular bishop, a nice man as bishops always are, had come to see me in 
hospital and he had prayed for me. When I turned up seven months later at his door, 
he looked extremely uncomfortable. I am sure this is not true of Australian bishops, 
but I wondered if perhaps it was because he was a bishop, he wasn't used to God 
answering his prayers! I said, "Well, you know you prayed for me. I went to hospital, 
I got well and here I am." He said, "But you are disabled now what can you do?" I 
said, "Well, father, I can drive a car." He looked totally terrified then. I think he was 
resolving never to be on the same road as I was. But I said to him, "You know, father, 
I think I can be more or a priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands." 

Now, eight years later, indeed it is true. With no hands I have a ministry that I never 
could have had with hands. In our country, a country which has known so much 
division, I find that having no hands enables me to minister in all our communities 
because people know that I know pain, that I know suffering and that I know sacrifice. 
I remember being asked to go and see a young man who had lost both hands and both 
feet. He had some injuries that I didn't have. But the fact that when I went to see 
him, I arrived driving a car (and in fact he said later that he only began to feed himself 
after I had visited him), just the fact that I was getting on with my life enabled him to 
take the first step away from victimness, through survival towards being a victor.

There is a saint of the universal church in the second century, St. Lawrence, deacon 
and martyr, who was asked by Roman persecutors to produce the wealth of the 
church, and they wanted the gold and the silver. St. Lawrence brought forth the very 
old, the very sick, the blind, those who couldn't walk, and said, "Here, here, is the 
wealth of the Church."

We who know and experience in very particular ways, be it intellectual or physical 
disability, are the wealth of the human family. Because we tell the rest of our sisters 
and brothers something about who we all are, we are a sign of fragility, a sign of 
mortality. We are also a sign of inter-dependence. Many of us cannot do everything by 
ourselves. We have to have somebody to help us to do things. Especially in the West 
we have taken independence to absurd levels. But we remind the whole human family 
that we need one another to be fully human. We cannot be fully human by ourselves. 
In Africa, there is a saying in many African languages and cultures, "I am because you 
are." So we remind the rest of the human family also of incompleteness, of the journey 
towards wholeness. We also remind it of compassion. Often we ourselves bring out 
compassion in others. We help people to discover other sides of themselves. 

I don't know what they'll say in the papers that will be delivered at this conference 
about men and disability. I guess it might be a little about that macho problem, real 
men don't cry and all that stuff. But we who are disabled help men to be more fully 
men, human in all our fullness. But also we the disabled community, as we demand a 
place in the sun, are a reminder to the whole human family of the need for justice, for 
inclusion. We stand uncomfortably, often within our faith communities, reminding 
them that they cannot be who they are without us. We do not ask for their pity, we 
ask for justice, and we say to our faith communities, "Don't include us in your 
community, but together we must create a community which is for all of us. And that is 
very different." We are not asking the faith communities to be nice to us and feel good 
about it. We are saying, "You cannot be a faith community without us." 

It is important that we should not be blind to our own oppressiveness. We should also 
recognise that we who have know so much oppression are quite capable of oppressing 
others. Its always much easier for us to see the ways in which others stand on our 
necks and to be blind to the ways in which we oppress others. It is also sad but true, 
that often one group of oppressed fight against their oppression but justify others' 
oppression. I want to make a call for us in the disabled community to have a deep and 
a profound solidarity for people who know oppression because of the colour of their 
skin, because of their gender, because of their sexual orientation. 

We are called to be signs of hope to one another in the human family but also we have 
something to teach faith communities about who God is which the L'Ache Community 
did for us tonight. They showed us something very profound about the nature of God. 

The question I have asked so many times, is why did they bomb me? I was a chaplain, 
a pastor, a priest of a liberation movement, a liberation movement that was fighting an 
armed struggle to end apartheid. I was a soldier of that liberation movement, but a 
funny kind of soldier. I never used an AK47. All I had was my tongue. They were a bit 
silly, they missed the tongue. Got the hands and missed the tongue. I have come to the 
conclusion that I was bombed because of my theology, because for 14 years I travelled 
the world saying to the human family, "Apartheid is an option or a choice for death 
carried out in the name of the gospel of life and that is why it is an issue of faith to say 
'no' to it, to say 'yes' to liberation." In the end they illustrated my point by seeking to 
kill me.

But then why did I survive when so many others of my friends I escorted to the 
graveyard to say the last words. Why then did I survive? I think it was important that 
some of us should survive with our dramatic injuries as a reminder of what we have 
done to each other so that the lie could not be preached that these things never 
happened. Some of us had to be there alive, to say "yes, we reached these depths of 
inhumanity." But much more importantly, it was important to survive to be just as the 
L'Ache community is, a small sign that the forces of justice, of peace and gentleness, 
of kindness and of compassion are stronger than the forces of hatred, evil and death. 

And so let us all walk the journey that is God's will for each of us, from victimness, 
through surviving, to victory.

I thank you.

Michael, on behalf of this gathered community this evening, thank you for helping us 
to begin our collective journey that is part of this conference, on that journey from 
victim, to survivor to being liberated, to being reconciled and to being fully human 
and free. I should have warned you though, as I spoke to you before, that there were 
going to be some bishops present! I am sorry. (He says if they are Australians its 
okay.) But more importantly Michael, I should have told you there are some 
chaplains present - now that is real problem!

About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

Contact Us

  • Institute for Healing of Memories
    5 Eastry Road, Claremont,
    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

  • +27 21 683 6231