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Disabled, and Doing Just Fine
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Released: October 20, 2017

 
Laura Lee Wright: I am under the impression that God makes everything perfect, so if God made the blind, the mute, the deaf, then therefore that’s perfection. 
[Music]
Father Michael Lapsley: Those of us with major physical disability tell the human family something about who we all are because for many human beings their incompleteness, their brokenness is not visible to be seen. We need each other to be fully human.
Kirk Van Gilder [KV]: Realizing that I’m made divine and that the world is a place where things happen and we are here to fix those things and God didn’t make those things happen, but we’re here to go through those things.
[Music]
Maureen Fiedler [MF]: Welcome friends to Interfaith Voices, I’m Maureen Fiedler. This week we hear the stories of three people of faith who are challenging mindsets and becoming visible. A lot of churches say “Come as you are” but for people living with disabilities it’s usually not so easy. Let’s face it from old buildings with non-existent wheel chair ramps to prayer books with impossibly tiny print, it’s no wonder that according to surveys, people with disabilities are less likely to show up in the pews.
As we’ll hear in the next hour some are working to change that like deaf minister Kirk VanGilder. Before we get to his interview though let’s start with the person that produced it, Joanna Broder. She spoke to Laura Kwerel about what his story means to her.
Joanna Broder (JB): Well, I think a lot about being deaf because my husband is deaf and he grew up in a conservative synagogue and he had difficulty following the services and it made me start to wonder what is the religious experience like for other people who are deaf, so I reached out to a professor of religion and a minister at Gallaudet University to see if I could learn more about his experience and he grew up going to church. It ultimately created a desire in him to minister to deaf populations and made him realize how important it is to be able to worship in your own language.
LK: Hmm. So Joanna, how did you do the interview if he’s deaf?
JB: Um, we had two interpreters come in to the studio with Kirk and we all sat down. I would ask the question, I would look at Kirk directly. One of the interpreters would translate my question into American Sign Language, also known as ASL, for Kirk. He would respond in sign language and another interpreter would interpret his response into spoken English for me, but even though there were four people in the studio, which is a lot, um I felt like we were really communicating and um the presence of the interpreters was not really an interference to that. It’s polite in the deaf culture to look directly at the person who is deaf, and not at the interpreter, and that makes sense because that’s what you would do when you are speaking to someone, and that’s what we did and it worked really well.
Kirk started the interview by reading from an essay that he wrote about the first time he realized he was different from other kids.
Kirk VanGilder (KV): “When I was ready to enter kindergarten class, I underwent the standard hearing test the school district puts all students through. I was flagged in the screen and told we needed to go see a specialist downtown. Being five-years-old, a trip downtown to see a specialist sounded like fun. After all, I must be “special”   to get to see a specialist.  That time it was a bit intimidating. Despite all the colorful posters and toys in the room, the air in the room still went strangely still when that big, thick door closed.
I was fitted with a large set of headphones and began to take my first, formal hearing test. As a five-year-old with an older sibling, I already knew a test was something you either passed or failed, and I knew I wasn’t passing this test as I struggled to hear the small beeps. When the test was finished, I remember the audiologist talking to my parents with a suddenly less cheerful voice. I was more interested in the things on his desk. Then he turned to me and said: “Kirk, there’s something wrong with you. You need a hearing aid.”
JB: Can you walk us back to that moment and how did you feel?
KV: It hurt. The audiologist was looking at me in a way that there was something was wrong with me – that I was going to need hearing aids, and so that attitude, that there was something wrong with me, stuck with me for a long time. And it was something that in later years, I had to learn to let go of, and to realize that diagnosis didn’t make me less of anybody.
JB: Can you tell us about your hearing loss?
KV:  So, my journey is a little different. I was born hard-of-hearing and I identified that way all growing up because of the difficulty I had in hearing. But I did not know sign language. I didn’t associate in the schools with other deaf students. And I used my hearing aids and lip-reading skills in schools to get along.  So, I identified as a person who is hard of hearing. In high school, my hearing loss got more profound and the struggles I had increased. I remember hearing things like birds, laughter, and other noises that later on I can’t hear. I haven’t heard a bird in a long time. The nails on blackboard though – some sounds I’m glad I’ve never heard so maybe that’s a fortunate experience of mine.
(Laughs)
JB: And your hearing loss was and is progressive. Do you remember when you first started to lose your hearing and what words started to go or what things you stopped hearing?
KV: My mother first noticed it of course, um, when I was 4 or 5 playing outside, and she would try to call me in for lunch or dinner, and I would just continue playing. She wasn’t sure if I wasn’t hearing her or I just wanted to play! Could have been a little bit of both. Um, but that, as we got closer to school age, she started to notice that there was something there, and I went in to an audiologist’s office for testing, and then they sent me to specialist’s office at 5.
My test that I took ended up being a failure from how I was, what I was told and that had an emotional impact on me.
JB: Umm. What was it like for you to have the progressive hearing loss?
KV: Um, there was definitely an element of fear there. Um, for a long time I could hear pretty well in my left ear, but then I started to lose my hearing in the right ear and in college I went back for another hearing test and I was told I needed to have hearing aids in both ears, and so emotionally that was difficult.
JB: I know you found some comfort in going to church, right? Can you tell me about that?
KV: So it’s interesting, growing up, comparing school and church—very different feelings. At school I felt very out-of-place and disconnected, but church was a very loving and supportive environment for me. Um, it was somewhat unique. Many deaf people don’t feel that in the church. They feel rejected. They feel like there’s no access. There’s no communication - that people look down on them, but my experience was different. I felt very welcome in church. Even though things weren’t perfect. I wasn’t able to participate fully. I still felt welcomed because I knew that people loved me there. In school it was very different and it was a stark contrast for me growing up.
The classroom I remember one particular teacher that was very difficult to understand or lip read and  the teacher would write while looking at the chalkboard. So you can’t lip read through the back of someone’s head. But the teacher never just stood in the front of the classroom either. They would wander between the aisles of the desks and so it was VERY hard!
In the seminary that I attended – Iliff School of Theology in Colorado – I started using interpreters in my classes there, and in the first semester, I used an FM system to help me hear and note takers, and there was a lot more discussion in the classroom where the FM system wasn’t helpful, so I started to incorporate an interpreter, and that first day when I used the interpreter in the classroom, I realized how much more was going on in the class that I had been going on in the class that I had been missing, and so from that moment on I started to use more interpreting because I wanted to participate in all of that discussion. I wanted to benefit from what was being said outside of my hearing from the FM system that was attached to the professor.
JB: So kind of the more you learned about what you didn’t know, the more you wanted to know.
KV:  Absolutely.
JB: Has your personal relationship with God been influenced in any way by the fact that you’re deaf?
KV: Yes! Part of it is that there are moments in life where we question, you know, why were we made this way? You know why is life so difficult? You know and we express those kinds of questions through prayer or through longing, but I wouldn’t change being deaf. I’m ok with what that means for me.
There are moments of introspection, where I look at who I am and as a teenager reading the story of Job, and the suffering of Job, and then at the end him asking God why? And God’s response was: “I who made the world and all things, I made thee as well. And so realizing that I’m made divine, and that the world is a place where things happen and we are here to fix those things. And God didn’t make those things happen, but we’re here to go through those things.
JB: Where are you at today with your hearing loss?
KV: Oh complete acceptance. I’m very flexible about it. I know that my hearing loss is part of who I am. It informs my view on life.  I move fairly comfortably between worlds and that’s a big advantage I have over other people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing that may not have that ability to move between worlds as easily as I do.
JB: Do you still feel like something is wrong with you?
KV: No. I’m proud of who I am and that there’s nothing wrong with me, and so that had a big impact.
JB: Hmm. Were there other things that had an impact?
KV: My acceptance of a deaf identity and becoming a minister um has informed me certainly on how to take the different identities of who I am and incorporate them into kind of a holistic me.
JB: Let’s go into when you discovered you wanted to be a minister?
KV: So I was a freshman in college. I was part of the youth ministry stuff at college, but I was also I was majoring in architecture at Ball State at the time. Going to church and I was engaged there, but I was very immersed in my schooling. And then we had an opportunity to go to a Methodist conference that takes place every two years about youth ministry and I thought: “Oh I’m going to go to that and I’ll miss the meetings and I’ll go check out the city of St. Louis while I’m there.”
But I got there and the first speaker that evening was a minister from South Dakota that talked about the honors of being a minister and helping people through times of pain and joy in their lives, and she made a huge connection to me there and what she said really made sense to me, and then so then I eventually made the decision to change my major and then went on to seminary.
JB: So her talk was really huge for you.
KV: Yeah, it was a moment where God spoke to me.
JB: Did being deaf cross your mind in terms of your new path?
KV: There were some conflicts that were there throughout the process. Sometimes there was a discussion about the deaf identity and ASL being a full and accepted language was challenged by others, and so I would have to defend how ASL is equivalent to English as far as you know kind of stature as a full language. I would have to advocate that and explain that and it became very tiresome.
JB: You wanted to work for a deaf church and you were given a hard time about that.
KV: So the general misunderstanding among the leadership was the cultural identity that came up. Well I had to create a response for the ordination, a paper, talking about how my relationship with the deaf community was part of my self-care and part of my spirituality.  So I submitted that paper and one person on the committee was very impressed by it. And I thought “oh great they’ve learned something.”
But what they said is: “Oh I’m impressed by this because I never thought of deaf people as a culture, so you’ve now identified deaf people as a culture. Cool! And I had to then reeducate that no, this wasn’t me. It was a very awkward situation where I had to respond and say: ‘Look you’ve missed the point that I feel connected to this culture that already exists. I haven’t come up with the idea of deaf culture!” So it was difficult and where do I start to respond to this person who with good intentions is thinking one thing, but I have to then re-explain myself all over again.
JB: So really just no idea about deaf culture and deaf communities.
KV: Oh absolutely.
A lot of misunderstanding and just ignorance, you know and that’s true in many different religions, you know, that you have to say: “Look, I am a deaf person and this is what it means and her is what it is. You can’t just show up. You have to go through this big explanation process, and by the time you get through all of that, sometimes you’re exhausted and it’s not fun anymore.
JB: Yeah I could imagine. 
When you were studying to be a minister you mentioned when you were doing your interviewing with the officials of the church you wanted to work for a deaf congregation because you would be spiritually fed. Can you explain that?
KV: The link of the community of people who are deaf and go to a church and being able to communicate with their minister in the same language, in the same culture and to communicate directly with that minister, and you know that they understand you because of who you are is really key, and to do that as a deaf person with a minister who’s well-intentioned but hearing and doesn’t share a language and a background and have that shared experience is very different.
So the worship experience for whatever religious group, being able to do that in your own language as opposed to doing it through an interpreter, um, that’s something missing and it doesn’t really matter on how qualified the interpreter is. It’s not about that. It’s just about being able to have direct access to the language um, you know, for people in the synagogues to be able to worship and read the Torah together in their language, you know, to be able to be Muslim and do that worship together in the same language is just a different experience than you can get and it’s so valuable and important to people.
JB: People don’t always know how to respectfully communicate with people who are deaf. What should people know about how to speak to someone who is deaf?
KV: Louder makes sound harder to understand. Lip-reading is tough. Even the best lip readers barely make it by. They’re going off of very little information. Try turning your TV off -- the sound off -- and lip reading your newscaster one night. It’s very difficult work. Using writing is worth your time. So people who are willing to try to communicate through gesture, through using writing are people that the community appreciates.
JB: Hmm. Very helpful. Could you leave us with your favorite prayer or blessing?
KV: That’s a tough question.  What do I pick?
JB: I should have warned you.
(Laughing)
KV: I guess the serenity prayer which is so well know. Give me the strength to change what I can and accept what I can’t. You know that’s a great life approach I think for everybody.
JB: I like it! What else do we need to know that we haven’t covered?
KV: We could talk all day but I think we’ve covered pretty much of everything. I feel very good about what we’ve shared today.
JB: Thank you so much for coming in.
KV: And thank you very much for the opportunity.
JB: Kirk Van Gilder is a professor of religion at Gallaudet University, the only University in the country that’s designed specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
The names of the interpreters today are Yvans Cator and William Kendrick.
For our deaf and hard of hearing audience, you can find a transcript of today’s show on our website at Interfaithradio.org. 
I’m Joanna Broder
[Music]
MF: After the break …
Father Michael Lapsley [ML]: Being part of the liberation struggle in South Africa had prepared me for the possibility of death. It had not prepared me for the possibility of permanent, major physical disability.
 
MF: We talk to Father Michael Lapsley who paid a high price for his work against Apartheid, but that didn’t stop him from his work helping others to heal. That’s after a short break.
[Music]
Interfaith Voices is supported in part by the Quixote Center, a national, faith-based center promoting justice, peace, and equality in today’s world. On the web at Quixote.org. That’s Q U I X O T E dot org.
[Music]
KV: I’m proud of who I am and that there’s nothing wrong with me.
YY: I began to look at my disability as kind of a gift from God.
Michael Laplsey [ML]: Perfection is not the human experience. Imperfection, incompleteness is the story of all of us.
MF: Welcome back to Interfaith Voices. I’m Maureen Fiedler. This hour we’re hearing stories from people whose physical challenges inform their work as spiritual leaders. Next we talk to Anglican priest Father Michael Lapsley, whose opposition to Apartheid in South Africa ended up altering his body and his soul. We first spoke in 2012.
Now let’s begin with the day that changed your life. It was 1990, soon after Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison in South African. Just when it seemed Apartheid might be nearing an end, you were in Zimbabwe, not South Africa because you’d been expelled from South Africa, and you received a seemingly harmless package, what happened?
ML: Yes, it was two religious magazines posted from South Africa, that had been sent to me. So I opened the magazines, one was in English one was in Africans, and when I opened the one in English it was the detonating device for a bomb, so the bomb exploded. In the explosion, I lost both my hands, an eye, ear drums shattered, and I remember the moment for reasons doctors don’t understand. I didn’t go into shock. I didn’t lose consciousness. So I remember the pain, but much more importantly I had a sense that God was with me, that somehow the great promise of scripture had been kept to me. I am with you always even til the end of the age. So God hadn’t stepped in and said it’s a bomb, don’t open it.
I also felt that Mary, who watched her son being crucified, understood what if was that I was going through. I also had that sense that I’m alive, actually, in the midst of this extraordinary pain.
MF: And you saw that almost as a victory?
ML: Yes, I mean I often say that my own journey is from being a victim to a survivor to a victor. You know if something terrible is done to us, we’re victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors, but often that’s where it stops, and people remain prisoners of moments of history. And I suppose in the days, months, years following the bombing, I was able to appropriate that victory um in the sense of moving from being an object of history to whom something had been done, to becoming a subject of history once more, being able to help participate in shaping and creating the world.
MF: And a lot of people going through something like that would feel that God had abandoned them. Why is it, do you think, that were you able to feel that God was with you. Indeed that God somehow saved you.
ML: (Laughter). I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s a good question, Maureen, but what I can say is that I was taken back to a faith learnt in earliest childhood in its simplicity and its directness. I mean I went to a monastery when I was 17. Joined a religious order of the Anglican Church. And that also meant that I had been soaked in Psalms as a religious. And so the Psalms of total dependence on God became very important. But having said that, in the weeks following there were times when I thought it would be better to be dead. I never met someone with no hands. I actually knew another priest who had lost one hand in an attack from South Africa, but he did everything with the other hand! So somehow losing two hands was not twice as bad. It was 200 times as bad. But when I was bombed, people from all over the world sent messages of prayer, love, support. And I would say that was the vehicle that God used to help me make my bombing redemptive, and by redemptive I mean to bring life out death, good out of evil.
MF: You were surrounded by a redemptive community worldwide …
ML: Yes, yes.
MF: Who were sending you wishes. Now, I’m wondering what kinds of thoughts did you have at that time about the people who did this to you? You said you knew immediately at the time that it was the Apartheid regimes somehow that had engineered this.
ML: Well, I sometimes have wondered about the person/persons involved. You know I wonder did the person who made the bomb, what did they say at night at dinner when they heard on television that this attack had happened yet I hadn’t been killed? Did they say to their loved ones at the table: ‘oh by the way I tried to kill a priest today with a letter bomb and I failed’?
So I … there was an occasion where we thought we possibly knew the names. In fact, it slipped away and there was no actual proof, but that day I cried. And I thought to myself ‘why am I crying?’ And I think because suddenly it wasn’t this regime in some theoretical way but it was actual human beings with parents and lovers and children who had done this you know to me.
MF: Yeah. But when this happened of course, you suddenly became a person with disabilities. In what ways did you learn to cope with those losses?
ML: Well I suppose part of my Westerness was that I thought after I was bombed, I thought ‘well look I’ve been bombed. Can I take that off? Can I get on with my life? Now, thank you very much.’ 
And in a way one of the first things I had to come to terms with was that I’d have no hands for the rest of my life. I’d only have one eye for the rest of my life, and so being part of a liberation struggle in South Africa had prepared me for the possibility of death. It had not prepared me for the possibility of permanent, major, physical disability, but in the days following the bomb, I remembered an image I had once seen. And the image was of an icon of Jesus with one leg shorter than the other. You know normally in iconography, Jesus is painted as the perfect white, male figure.
MF: Right.
ML: But this image picked up the story of the Messiah who was marred beyond human semblance and it helped me to see that perfection is not the human experience. Imperfection, incompleteness, need of a journey to harness is the story of all of us, so I began to see that you know of course it’s good to have a degree of independence – to go to the bathroom alone and not have someone to he or whatever it is – but I came to see we need as human beings a healthy interdependence and I began to see that those of us with major physical disability tell the human family something about who we all are, it’s just that we do it in a visible and a dramatic way because for many human beings their incompleteness, their brokenness is not visible to be seen, but we all know it’s part of the human story and that we need each other to be fully human.
MF: Ummm. And you were able to gain enough shall I say you were able to recuperate a little bit from your disabilities thanks to prostheses that have a hook on them, for your hands …
ML: Right, right.
MF: And glasses were able to adjust your eyesight such that you can see in one eye, right?
ML: Yes and I remember the joy of when they realized that I would be able to read again. And also when they said you’re sight is good enough that you can drive a car. Now you can imagine Maureen when people see the driver next to them’s got no hands, they get out of the way anyway, so …
MF: [Laughter] I can imagine.
ML: But it’s great. I mean I can do the big things. You know I can drive a car. I can use a computer. But ask me to undo the top button of my shirt that’s quite tough.
MF: Yes, I can imagine it is. In the book, you say in one place though, “I long to be seen as more than the disability.” Talk about that. What did that mean to you?
ML: Well I suppose … um so a dimension of who I am you know is that I’m a man, that I uh have disability, but my disability is not what is primary. It is my humanness, uh and because my disability’s dramatic and unusual in a sense that not so many people lose both hands. You know people are inclined to stare or look the other way. Kids are always great cause kids sort of say ‘where are your hands?’ You know and they start poking me round, while the parents are busy not coping. But it’s this issue where one needs to see beyond the disability to the human person and the fullness of that person.
MF: Now of course there’s one aspect of losing your hands that is crucial. You’re a priest and priests have consecrated hands when they celebrate the Eucharist, what some people would know as Holy Communion. Are you able to celebrate the Eucharist today?
ML: Yes, I mean it sounds strange but I was in a hospital in Zimbabwe and I spent seven months in two hospitals in Australia and the occupational therapists said what do you need to do in terms of your work? And I said ‘well I need to be able to drive a car. I’m a priest. I need to be able to celebrate the Eucharist.’ So these occupational therapists, who weren’t particularly religious people, were there in the church seeing whether or not I was able to celebrate the Eucharist, so yes I do and that’s very wonderful that I can, you know, that I’m able to do that. But it’s interesting, they also said to me what are some things you like to do? And I said one of the things I like to do is take photographs, so they said bring the camera and we’ll see what we can fit on it to make it easier for you to use. So they weren’t just reducing me to a functional being, but they were concerned with me as a whole human being and you know what gives my life meaning as well.
[Music]
MF: We’re speaking with Father Michael Lapsley. He’s an Anglican priest who was permanently disabled in 1990 after he was attacked for his work against South Africa’s often violent policy of racial segregation known as Apartheid. After the break, he’ll tell us why his faith led him to risk it all.
ML: For me the most terrible thing was realizing that those who shot children read the Bible every day and went to church every Sunday and shot kids!
MF: That’s next.
[Long musical interlude]
MF: Welcome back to Interfaith Voices. Father Michael Lapsley lost both his hands, an eye and partial hearing after he was targeted with a mail bomb for his opposition to Apartheid. When we spoke in 2012 I asked him how his deep commitment to the teachings of Christianity led him to become a freedom fighter for the people of South Africa.
ML: The day I arrived in South Africa, I stopped being a human being and became a white man because suddenly every every every aspect of my life was decided by the color of my skin. From the bathroom I could use to the suburb I could live in to the University I could study in to the park bench I could sit on, even the part of the sea  I could swim in.
MF: Describe for those who may not recall exactly what was Apartheid?
ML: Well, uh the myth of the Apartheid regime was they said “separate but equal.”  The reality was political, social, economic rights were in the hands of the white minority and the majority who were Black were voteless. And there were myriads of laws under which all Black people suffered under South Africa determining where they could work, where they could live, who they could marry, on and on an on. It was to every aspect of human life. And the most terrible thing about it, Maureen, was it was in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
MF: Yes, I was going to ask you how did they use religion to justify what they did.
ML: Well, a kind of an abuse, a misuse of the Christian gospel was the principal ideological weapon used by the Apartheid state. But this was a racist God and this is why it was of fundamental importance. I meant the international community said Apartheid was a crime against humanity. But the International Christian community said it’s a heresy. It’s a false doctrine and the church had taught me that human beings have value because we are God’s children. And Apartheid said the most important thing about you is the color of your skin. The very opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
MF: Right, I want to get to the incident that sort of led you it seems to me into some activism against Apartheid and that was June 16, 1976 and this was the Soweto Uprising, about 20,000 high school students rose up against Apartheid. This was unprecedented and it led to a nationwide massacre because about 176 people were killed in one day.
ML: Yes and about 1,000 over a period of a year and thousands imprisoned and detained and tortured.
MF: Right. And how did this change you?
ML: Well, it shook my faith to its roots. Um for me the most terrible thing was realizing that those who shot children read the Bible every day and went to church on Sunday and shot kids. And that shook my faith profoundly but also I had been a convinced pacifist but the killing of children brought me to the very painful conclusion that in our context, and after 50 years of non violent resistance, which the African people had had to Apartheid – and remembering too that African people also were vote less – they couldn’t change the state nonviolently and so armed resistance had become morally legitimate, necessary and justified.
MF: Um. Now after of this happened. After some amount of physical healing and so forth from your injuries, you eventually created the Institute for Healing Memories in 1998. What’s the mission of that group?
ML: Well, we seek to contribute to the healing journey of nations, communities and individuals and I should say it came out of two things in a way. One is I reflected on my own journey of healing and what helped me to heal. I had very good medical treatments, so I had good treatment for the body, but the key thing was that my story was acknowledged, reverenced and recognized and given a moral content. People said what happened to me was wrong. And it was this prayer, love and support that I received from across the world that enabled me to make my bombing redemptive, to bring good out of evil, life out of death. But when I came back to South Africa, I discovered a damaged nation, a nation damaged in our humanity, damaged by what we’d done, by what had been done to us, by what we failed to do. And all of us with a story to tell. All of us with stuff in us as a consequence of the nation’s journey, so my reflection on my own journey and my reflection on the nation’s journey led us to develop an experiential model which we called the healing of the memories workshop and at the time I was chaplain to trauma center for victims of trauma and torture so Healing of Memories was started in 1998 but longer than an elephant we had a pregnancy of about five years.
MF: Laughter
ML: As we developed this particular methodology which we used in South Africa and now many other parts of the world and of course here in the United States um and uh I always remember a particular woman in Rwanda, Esther, she was a widow of the genocide and when I speak I talk about this journey from victim to survivor to victor, uh and the alternative journey being victim/victimizer, victim/victimizer, but she had a different way of putting it and she said you know, many of us we are the survivors of the genocide and we get up in the morning, we have our breakfast, we walk around, but we’re dead inside and she talked about people who are dead-alive and she spoke of the journey of healing as the journey of becoming “alive alive.” And this is where you can, you don’t forget what’s happened to you, you still grieve for what you’ve lost, but you also dare to have joy. You dare to be able to celebrate life.
MF: And you also say that all of us are capable of being both victims and victimizer.
ML: Yes, and even at the same time, you see in a way these are the two cycles. The cycle I referred to when I talked about Victim-Survivor-Victor. The other cycle is when victims become victimizers. And it’s very striking in the work that we do in prisons both here and in the United States and in South Africa and that all, but a high proportion of people who do the most terrible things to others have had terrible things done to them.
MF: Hmm. Have you reverted back to being a pacifist because of those thoughts?
ML: Well, as I say you know the only automatic weapon I’ve ever used is my tongue, so I continue to use it, but my journey is from freedom fighter to healer and both are about liberation and I think that my calling today is to contribute to the healing journey of nations. And sometimes people say to me “How many people have you healed?” And I say to myself Oh my Goodness, well probably none. But what I have done is that I’ve been enabled with my colleagues at the Institute to create safe and sacred spaces where people can, where the journey of healing can take place, where people can detoxify, get rid of the poison in them.
MF: Briefly, what’s the process of healing memories?
ML: We use storytelling. We use drawing. Invited people to draw their life story. We use clay, inviting people to be part of creating something. But the key thing is the safe space in a collective way because there’s also great value when there are multiple witnesses to our healing. A woman the other day, a friend of ours talked about her experience of memories. She said she had the opportunity to be vulnerable without judgment. 
You know there’s one of these expressions in English that’s not true. “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.” The reality is the opposite is the case that often laughter can separate us but pain can unite us and pain is transcendent. And we can have people who have been on the opposite sides at conflict. So for example in our context in South Africa, a Black mother says you know my child went to fight Apartheid and never came back. And the white child went to fight for Apartheid and came back damaged forever. And suddenly they’re two mothers with pain that unites them. It doesn’t take away  the objective reality of differences in social, economic conditions and the need to address those but there’s a commonality of humanity which unites people and they then feel less alone and connected.
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MF: Anglican priest, Father Michael Lapsley. His book is called “Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer,” and he’s the director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories.”
Laura Lee Wright [LW]: When I was born, my mother, her heart stopped and at that point I was in the birth canal for about 30 minutes. She had permanent brain damage and I had Cerebral Palsy, which affects my speech as well as my hand coordination. You never want to see my handwriting.
MF: That’s Laura Lee Wright. For years she’s worked to make places of worship more inclusive for people with disabilities. Now do you ever come across people who think that their disability is somehow a punishment for sin? Do you still run into that attitude?
LW: Absolutely I would say that I probably take two or three calls like that per month from local people. I really ran across that when I worked in Europe in local churches there.
MF: Umm. And what do you say to people who say something like that to you?
LW: I really went back to a Bible story that happens very early in the Bible and that I talk about Moses and Moses had a call on his life and he really struggled. He really did not want to be a leader and God was calling him into leadership and ..
MF: And if I can interrupt here, he was a stutter was he not?
LW: Yes, yes. He used every excuse in the book and then he thought he had the trump card in that he said you know I’m slow of speech and then at that point you see a change in God’s kind of personality and his next words are “hey who made the mute? Who made the blind? Who made the lame? Well God is referring to himself as the person who made those things, so I am under the impression that God makes everything perfect, so if God made the blind, the mute, the deaf, than therefore that’s a perfection and it’s us as a society who see those things are imperfections.
MF: Very interesting, so in so far as a human being experiences that as a challenge, it’s a challenge to be overcome from your point of view in the effort to serve God better?
LW: Yes.
MF: Now I think kind of the ultimate question that all people with some kind of disability have to ask themselves is “why me?” And “why would a loving God send me such a hardship?” Did you ever ask yourself that and if so how do you answer it?
LW: Yeah. I guess I would say that for years I asked that and struggled with that, and as I studied scripture, I came to realize a few things. A. Why not me? I began to look at my disability as kind of a gift from God, and when God gives us gifts one of the things that he challenges us to do with those gifts is to become his servant. We talked about Moses having a disability. In the New Testament, we can talk about Paul who we know that there was a thorn in his flesh but there’s also evidence that that probably was some type of visual impairment and Paul also talks about within our weaknesses we become strong.
MF: Fascinating. So in what others see as a weakness you see as a gift and a potential strength in your efforts to help other people.
LW: Absolutely, looking at those individuals as potential individuals who can serve alongside you other than oh the poor, sad person in the wheelchair who can’t do anything. Rather we need to look at those individuals as having gifts that really enhance the body as a whole.
MF: Um hm. Now, finally, sometimes some of us who don’t have disabilities – or at least think we don’t – see a person who has a disability in our place of worship and we don’t know how to talk to them. We want to make them feel welcome but we don’t know how. What advice would you give to someone like that?
LW: I would challenge you to speak to them just like you would your best friend. Welcome them. Make eye contact. Shake hands with them the same way you would anyone else. If someone happens to be in a wheelchair and you’re going to have extended conversations with them, I would encourage you to get eye to eye with them. If you’re running into someone who has a visual impairment, I would encourage you not to raise your voice, because those individuals probably have a keener sense of hearing than what you and I have. I would also as you begin to build relationships with those individuals I would just talk about your fears and your concerns and be really open about that. I think so often it’s the elephant in the room that we just don’t want to talk about and once you talk about the elephant, life is great and there’s a whole lot more breathing room.
MF: Laura Lee Wright. We first spoke in 2008. She now works at Camp Daniel, a faith-based summer camp for children with disabilities.
Well friends that’s our show this week. Please come and visit us at Interfaithradio.org where we are posting a transcript of our entire show for our deaf and hard of hearing audience. You can also subscribe to our free podcast and sign up for our free newsletter so you can be the first to know when new episodes are posted. You can listen to us anytime on your smartphone through iTunes, Stitcher or the app you like best. Our staff includes Laura Kwerel, Ruth Morris, Melissa Feito and Joanna Broder. And do join us next week for more stories and more Interfaith Voices. I’m Maureen Fiedler.
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