Honoring courage

Sometimes a letter contains more than the words on it. Sometimes, a piece of paper, wields an unmistakable power to inspire, to heal, to bring us together—even to release a free soul from a captive body.

Inside an old square cookie tin under my bed, I keep the letters my father wrote while I was in college. Most detail the ordinary news of my large family and pleas to remain calm during exams. My father illustrated the envelopes with stick figures of himself, his spindly arms waving and speech bubbles saying “I miss you!” coming out of the tiny “o” mouth.

{mosads}These letters contain a self-aware humor, a relentless work ethic, kindness, and unfailing love. What makes this remarkable is that I knew, even then, that he was battling paralyzing depression and struggling to make a living in Puerto Rico while exiled from his beloved Cuba.

I keep a separate box in my closet. In it are letters my husband wrote to our then-toddlers when he deployed to Iraq. Although they were incapable of reading them, the letters were full of tall tales about finding flying carpets and befriending magical people. Should anything happen to him, my husband insisted, his children must think of him as humorous and adventurous.

I keep one more box—or, rather, three. These are boxes for each of my children with books they must read as adults. There are three signed copies of Against All Hope, Armanda Valladares’ memoir of his 22 years in Castro’s gulags.

Valladares was arrested at 22 years old for refusing to say, “I am with Fidel.”

During his imprisonment, Valladares wrote letters and poetry, which his wife smuggled and had published, to critical acclaim. Since he had nothing to write on or with, he used anything he could find. Sometimes it was a carefully preserved bit of cigarette paper. Sometimes it was a scrap of torn envelope, or a discarded medicine bottle label. At times he used a pencil or, if he was lucky, he found ingredients to make invisible ink to write secret messages to his beloved wife.

Once, when he was in a punishment cell, he wrote a poem on a scrap of paper using his own blood as ink.

Valladares suffered relentless beatings during those 22 years. He spent eight of them in solitary confinement in a mosquito-infested cell, where he lay naked on a concrete floor and was regularly bathed with buckets of human excrement and urine the prison guards flung into the cell. He endured several hunger strikes, which eventually left him paralyzed for a number of years.

Yet, through his poetry and letters, Valladares was free.

Valladares was arrested for refusing to say four words. But he stayed in prison because he refused to sign a piece of paper that would hand moral authority to Castro’s Revolution. He stayed to defend what he later described as his own conscience, his belief in God, his own humanity and that of his fellow political prisoners.

Since his release in 1982, Valladares has continued to globally advocate for human rights, rights of conscience and individual freedom. Recently, Valladares wrote a piece in the New York Post about the Little Sisters of the Poor. The federal government has refused to give these Catholic nuns an exemption from the contraceptive mandate, instead insisting that they sign a piece of paper that will authorize their own health insurance plan to provide drugs they morally oppose.

As Armando Valladares knows well, something as small as a piece of paper can mean the beginning or the end of freedom.

I know this, too. The box of letters under my bed reminds me that our lives are made of seemingly small moments in which we are called to live with valor and dignity. My father was my hero not because of one momentous act of bravery, but because of small, daily acts of courage.

The Sisters’ lives are made heroic by the moments they spend tenderly combing the hair of the dying, whispering encouragement to those who are lonely, in pain, and fearful. Small acts like these are what give them the clarity that each life matters—and the strength to refuse to sign away that conviction.

Valladares, who has led a life of incomparable heroism, understands the critical need to defend people like the Sisters. Each scrap of paper, each word he wrote, each small step he took to preserve his human dignity—this is how he survived, a moment at a time.

Each year, we at Becket award the Canterbury Medal to an individual who has shown courage and strength in the defense of religious freedom. We have chosen Armando Valladares to receive this award in May 2016. After all, it is only fitting that the same year the Supreme Court will consider whether the federal government can force nuns to, among other things, sign away their faith, we honor a man who refused to sign away his because he knew that letters on a piece of paper can and do have power and meaning.

Arriaga is executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  

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