Do you know what it is, to be robbed? Not the casual act of pickpocketting, nor the conversational theft? nor the rampart internet fraud? No, not any of these. I mean the kind of robbery that leaves you face to face with death, the kind that threatens your human dignity, that denies you your clean linen and hard-earned possessions on account of the ruinous charges of armed lads, that robs you of your own self-respect and causes you to slink along the streets vaguely abashed, instead of walking erect among your fellow-men in independent ease. This is the kind of robbery I mean.
Only If you have experienced this, can you judge me.
It started with a little shouting here and there, then it increased to a mad chase, a run, a stampede of men with zealous craving to catch and devour. I was left in a vacant wonder of what might have caused the uproar. Steadying my thoughts with an effort, I tried to read every movement and expression deliberately and delicately too. As the stupefaction of my wonder increased, I turned giddily to take a look, and it was only by sheer force of design that I kept myself from swooning with the agitation of anger mingled with pity and sadness.
It was another robbery. But this time, against the normal routine, it was the thief that was being robbed of his clean linen and hard-earned possessions, Yea, hard-earned. He was caught red-handed with weapons trying to strip another of his wealth. Now a mob of men had gathered and had him naked, stripped of all clothing. With materials capable of setting him ablaze, they were ready to play the role of God, who alone gives and takes life.
I glanced at the man, he looked pale, and a sense of pity crept about my heart as I realized what dreams and ambitions were about to be burnt to ashes.
Nevertheless, I was more concerned about the opinions of the spectators, they had different views and I guess each of them spoke out of personal experiences and temperament. I for one was indifferent, one part of me wanted him to burn to scorn with no return, because of my previous encounter with these armed men, while the other part shallowly reminded me of John 8:7. Among the crowd gathered, a man caught my attention, a man I guess would be in his mid 40’s. He looked gentle, but his eyes spoke somewhat of violence and hardness, he spoke with diligence as if he knew the thief from birth. This man had my whole attention amidst the crowd, I had to meet him for a personal conversation. And this conversation was a turning point in my life. This gentle man could have ended up like this thief here, but something happened.
Permit me to tell you about this man, his name is Victor. Victor was a victim of poor parenting, he was the 6th child in a family of 8 that lived under a single room, with each of them having to feed and cater for themselves. Victor had to go into the street and do whatever it was he had to do to make ends meet. Summarily, he ran out of luck and ended up in the prison yard, he spent 7 years in Onitsha prison before he was bailed.
Today Victor is a changed man. Now, instead of carrying weapons of destruction, he carries weapons of love; instead of robbing, he gives. “What happened? What changed you Victor?” that was all I could ask.
Victor’s transformation as he narrated was not as a result of the torture he received at the prisons rather it was as a result of his encounter with Archbishop Valerian Okeke while in Onitsha Prison. Although not a personal encounter, it was deep enough to transform the hardest soul. While in Prison, Victor found it very hard to understand the generosity, kindness, sensitivity, love and wisdom of his grace, Archbishop Valerian. He couldn’t understand how a man of that standard would be so kind to spend his most important days with mere prisoners; poor sinners as Victor would say. In his words, “I never knew it was possible for someone we look up to, to come down to us, to spend Christmas, Easter and his birthday with us”. As he spoke, I saw tranquility absorbed in passion and admiration in his eyes. Victor was a hardened criminal who was only waiting to be bailed to continue in his fraudulent ways, but was softened by the charisma of His Grace, Archbishop Val Okeke.
Thrice or more every year, His Grace visits and spends quality time with prisoners at the Onitsha prison yard. This is not just a social gathering, it is a spiritual and integral visit. A gathering of love, where His Grace reassures prisoners that they are still sons of God and that they can still make something out of their lives. He touches their hearts with his powerful homilies, advice, encouragement, prayers and quality gifts. This particular humanitarian act of His Grace has gone a long way to change lives, to transform criminals into saints, hardened liars into preachers of truth. It was the Charisma of his Grace that transformed Victor.
Victor narrated that while some treated them like mere miscreants and poor sinners, His Grace treated them as his brothers and equally, sons of God. His Grace goes to the extent of starting up skill-learning programmes for them. Through these, they were able to learn a skill for themselves, be it sowing, mechanic work, plumbing and the rest. What a beauty this is. Prisoners that once saw their lives as miserable, now felt loved. His grace gave Victor and other inmates of Onitsha prison hope and dream to live on, he made them know that even though they had made terrible mistakes, there was still hope. Victor was passionate about this story, he narrated that while they enjoy his words and visit, they are always in hope of when next he would come, and he never fails, he is always there on every Christmas day, Easter Sunday and 20th October (birthday of Archbishop Valerian) every single year. His Grace is a Pastor, King and mentor, a true shepherd and leader. Just like Hubert Humphrey once observed “The moral test of a true leader is how he treats those who are at the dawn of life, those who are in the twilight of life, the aged and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped”
As I was listening to victor, I turned to the burning thief, the finely shaped head had devoted its power to flames of anguish, his mouth was perhaps the most telling feature in his remarkable face; it has been graced with rains of passionate blows and hand kisses. His eyes were same size with his lips, he looked like nothing. Victor could have ended up like this poor thief here, he could have returned to his old way of life, or became worst after serving his years in prison just like we see many do, but he didn’t, he internalized the words and kindness of His Grace and made a rethink. In his words “If His Grace can be so kind, accommodating and generous to us Prisoners, why should I be so unkind to my neighbour?”
These qualities of His grace is simply what I think we all should emulate, this compassion and kindness is what is going to change the world because the real act of being humane is to attract, retain and motivate individuals, recognizing their intrinsic differences and life styles, and to assist and make possible in every way the achievement of their personal objectives in the accomplishment of our corporate goals.
His Grace Archbishop Valerian Okeke, has undoubtedly been a source of inspiration to many, he has touched many souls with his kindness, generosity and meekness. As he marks his 40th Priestly Anniversary, we celebrate 40yrs of a good shepherd, 40 yrs of kindness, generosity and love. Let us learn from him, to be compassionate to people, no matter how bad they seem to be, because we are all sons of the same heavenly Father. If we emulate His Grace, we will have less thieves and miscreants rather we would have more converts like Victor and the world would be a better place.
Long Live His Grace!
Congratulations on your 40th Priestly Anniversary!
Cheers to more fruitful years ahead!
Rufus Somkenechukwu Ezechukwu