Redeeming the Past

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Redeeming the Past:  My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer,
Father Michael Lapsley, SSM; Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2012


            Michael Lapsley is one of the many unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.  A devout Anglican from New Zealand, he entered the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), an Anglican religious order, when he was seventeen. 

Sent by his religious superiors to South Africa in 1973, Lapsley was shocked by the signs of apartheid everywhere:  an elevator for Whites Only, another for Goods and Non-Whites; the law that said he must live in a White area of Durban; the segregated beaches.  Indeed, his first evening in South Africa, during dinner with the family that had met him at the airport, he asked his hosts if there were black people in their congregation. ‘“Oh yes,” they said, “and they are very good—they always sit at the back.”’  He even found that “. . .apartheid had thoroughly penetrated the mentality of my own community.”

In Durban, Lapsley was both student and chaplain at the University of Natal.  He used this position to teach and preach against apartheid.   By 1975, despite his pacifism, he became sympathetic to the African National Congress (ANC), which he eventually joined as chaplain.  It was, however, the Soweto uprising of 1976 and its aftermath of repression, detention and torture that catapulted him into a deeper commitment to the struggle and greater perceived threat to the government.  Before long, he was expelled from the country.  Instead of returning to New Zealand, he went to neighboring Lesotho, where Bishop Desmond Tutu welcomed as a priest of his diocese.  There, with other activists, he continued his anti-apartheid work.

The event that turned Lapsley from Fighter to Healer occurred on April 28, 1990, after the defeat of the apartheid regime and the release of Nelson Mandela.  He opened a piece of mail, and a bomb exploded in his hands.  He lost his hands and one of his eyes.  He shares with the reader his feelings during his long physical and emotional recovery from this trauma.  It is significant that, for functionality, he chose hooks as prostheses rather than more aesthetically pleasing hands.  His work from then on has been with the movement he founded, Healing of Memories workshops, which he has taken globally.

Of course, Lapsley’s telling of his own story cannot be separated from his descriptions of and reflections upon the everyday realities of apartheid.  In fact, this blend of narrative and reflection characterizes the book.  For example, he admits that as a child, “Alas, I didn’t always have an age-appropriate sense of my limits, and I think I was sometimes quite obnoxious with my religiosity.”   In describing The Development of Theology program, an initiative of the Lutheran World Federation, with which Lapsley worked during a time of displacement, he writes, “We understood theology to be a living organism that had to grow and change in response to the conditions in which people lived.  That was, after all, Jesus’ way.”  And later, after reporting a particularly moving incident during a Healing of Memories workshop, he reflects, “I think we are called to be signs of hope, but to do that we must be able to deal with our own woundedness.” 

The book includes good photos of Lapsley using his prostheses, which enhance the narrative.  I recommend the book for anyone looking for insight into unconditional commitment to the Gospel by someone how freely admits his own failings and weaknesses.


Pat Chaffee OP

Racine, Wisconsin.

Book Review Archive

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(The latest submissions are listed first.)


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