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What love looks like

February is for prisoners, too

By Carolyn Pogue

February is a surprisingly full month, coming as it does in the sleepy, dark wintertime. It begins with groundhogs and ends with leaping. In between we have Black history, healthy hearts, love and the Women’s Memorial March for missing and murdered women. And, if we enter the spirit of St. Valentine, prisoners.

You may recall the story of the Roman priest, which I retold in my book Seasons of Peace: Father Valentine lived in the reign of Claudius, an emperor remembered as a heartless man who enjoyed sending young men to battle. Over time, he found that fewer men wanted to serve in his army. They didn’t want to die in battle, but to stay home with lovers, wives and children.

Claudius introduced conscription and then outlawed weddings for the young. But even emperors cannot stop people from falling in love. Secretly, they still married. One priest performing these weddings was Valentine. His conscience told him that banning marriages and promoting war was backwards. “Promote love,” he said, “and ban war.”

One night, walking a lonely street, he was attacked. Bursting from the shadows, four men grabbed him, beat him and marched him to a damp prison.

Awaiting word of his fate, Valentine befriended Sofia, a compassionate girl who brought him watery soup each day. They became friends. When the jailer announced Valentine’s execution, Sofia was heartbroken. On February 14, 269, the last morning of his life, Valentine asked for paper, ink and a feather. Perched on his wooden stool, he composed a note to Sofia, signing it “Your Valentine.”

There are many ways to give our hearts. We can give it to a person, a group, a just cause. Elda Thomas would have liked Sofia. Throughout her adult life, Elda, a member of Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto, has lived a life of compassion. Working with support organizations like the Bridge, she befriends ex-convicts, the ones most of society don’t want to think about. She once told me, “I don’t pretend to understand it all — I didn’t grow up with violence or alcohol, or with a mom in the sex trade, for example. And I don’t condone what the guys have done. But if they are willing to try to walk a new path, away from crime and violence, then I will walk with them.”

Elda’s life’s work has earned the trust and respect of people abandoned by mainstream society. She also received a Caring Canadian Award in 1999 for her efforts.

It is bewildering that these days, our federal government is dismantling working farms that have been proven to rehabilitate inmates and is instead building mega-prisons that we already know will fail inmates and fail society.

This February, I thank God for people who show us love in the deepest sense of the word.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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