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 names.
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 magazine.
A New Zealand native, Lapsley was targeted by operatives within the then-white South African government for his outspoken opposition to apartheid.
Lapsley, 56, has used his experience to tell a story of one man’s 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 concert.
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 “World Quilt for Peace.”
McCallum said he was greatly moved by Lapsley’s story.
“I felt like I was meeting a saint,” McCallum said of the priest, who uses two steel-claw prosthetics where he once had hands. “He’s just an amazing human being.”
During his five-day visit to the Triangle, Lapsley sold copies of “Priest and Partisan,” 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:
“This 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. . . . Michael’s 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.”
The soft-spoken Lapsley was assigned to South Africa in 1973, the same year he was ordained. His life’s 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.
“I sometimes feel that the day I arrived in South Africa, I stopped being a human being and I became a white man,” he said.
Lapsley quickly discovered the extent of South Africa’s segregation. The post office had two entrances, one for “whites only,” the other for “non-whites.” 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, “whites only,” the other elevator with a sign that said “goods and non-whites.”
These early images basically summed up what apartheid was about, Lapsley said. “We who were white, were people, and they who were black, were like parcels,” he said.
Even the beaches were segregated, Lapsley said. Whites, Indians and those of mixed race had their own beaches, with “the worst possible conditions” reserved for Africans, those in the majority.
“Even the sea was racially divided,” he said.
Most disconcerting for Lapsley was the fact that the system called apartheid claimed to be Christian.
A major turning point in Lapsley’s life came in 1976, when the South African government turned its guns against protesting children, killing more than 1,000.
“The 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,” he said.
“That’s shocking. How does a parent shoot a child unless racism has so entered their souls that they didn’t see the child? They saw something black, not a child like their child.”
That experience also led Lapsley to abandon his strict Christian pacifist position. In “Priest and Partisan,” Lapsley speaks about the manipulation of language. “The term Oviolence’ is reserved for the eventual response of the oppressed to the oppression,” he wrote. “When 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.”
People read the Bible in the light of their own experience, Lapsley said.
“There are people who allege they read the Bible objectively; don’t believe them,” he said. “We all read it according to what’s happening in our lives.”
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.
“Suddenly all the passages in the Bible about exile had a whole new meaning,” Lapsley said. “By 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.”
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.
“I opened the magazine, and they exploded,” Lapsley said. “Ironically, it was a government that claimed to be Christian that used religious magazines to try to kill a priest.”
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 “a victim” 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 nations.
For McCallum, a man who uses his hands for his livelihood, meeting Lapsley was also a lesson in survival.
“Being a pianist, to have someone there who lost their hands was very profound,” McCallum said. “My hands are my life. It’s how I speak and communicate, and he’s 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.”