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A priest from South Africa who was maimed by a bomb in Boston reaches out to Americans about forgiveness

Michael Lapsley is trying to help others who have suffered trauma. (AFP)
Michael Lapsley is trying to help others who have suffered trauma. (AFP)

Hours after bombs exploded during the final stages of the Boston marathon Father Michael Lapsley, priest, anti-apartheid fighter and a bomb victim ­himself, spoke to an audience in Washington, DC, about healing.

He had not planned it that way. The event was to launch his book, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer. It had been scheduled for last October but Hurricane Sandy scuppered those plans. Instead, it took place on a day when three people were killed and more than 100 injured in Boston.

Lapsley, who lost both his hands and the sight in one eye from a letter bomb in 1990, told the crowd that included Africa lobbyists, American church people and delegates from the South African and Cuban embassies that he could never talk about himself as a victim.

Yet he appealed to the audience to "identify with those who died but also with those who survived, who will live with this forever".

Lapsley was not the first speaker to draw the parallels between the trauma he had suffered and that of the day's events. Andrew Nhlapo, of the South African embassy, which hosted the event, asked for a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the Boston bombings.

And South Africa's ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, said: "It is ironic that we are here today to talk about healing and reconciliation on the day that a bomb – those evil things designed to kill people – has gone off in Boston."

Although there is no evidence yet about who is responsible, the ambassador spoke about the "nihilism of fundamentalism". Rasool, a Muslim, said he despaired of any faith "that tells people they can die for a cause without knowing how to live for it ... when you can label people without engaging them".

Vision of the future
Lapsley, he said "has become a metaphor for South Africa's ­finest moment". It takes more courage "to forgive someone than to kill someone". Lapsley, in turn, commended Rasool's "commitment, as a Muslim, to an interfaith vision of the future".

It was as though the Boston bombs had stamped the occasion with a spirit of universalism rather than particularity.

Jennifer Davis, past head of the American Committee on Africa, a spearhead of the anti-apartheid and sanctions movement in North America, spoke of her German-Jewish grandmother with whom she had grown up in South Africa.

"She spoke about the concentration camps ... and I learnt that when we said 'never again', we meant, really, never again would we allow such things to happen to any other people, not just to Jewish people."

Lapsley spoke not only about how he was maimed in a bomb mailed to him in a religious magazine three months after Nelson Mandela's release, but also about injustices he saw in the US: the long imprisonment of the "Cuban Five", the death penalty that persists in many states in the country and homeless war veterans wounded in action for their country, then forgotten.

"In South Africa we did something unparalleled. We faced the truth about what we had done to each other in the same generation," Lapsley said, adding that he still does not know who sent him the bomb, "who wrote my name on [it], or the chain of command … but it's an abiding issue, not a consuming issue".

Few shaken by the bomb in Boston would have heard the words of the priest with the fractured body whose vocation is now to heal those who have suffered trauma in other parts of the world. But if there is a resonance among those who suffered from the Boston marathon bomb, it will be as much about the struggle of survival as about the pain of loss.


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.

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