Commentary: A Word on Freedom
Written by The Rev. Geoffrey Black and the Rev. Linda Jaramillo
December 15, 2013

Along with millions of people from every continent, we celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela. His extraordinary combination of courage, humility and statesmanship make him a singular figure in the history of the world. As we contemplate his life and legacy, one conclusion is inescapable. Although the 27 years he spent in prison strengthened his already-strong character, they were far too long. One somewhat apolitical woman who was watching a program about him blurted out, "27 years? That's ridiculous! Why would they do that? It's positively inhumane!" 

Well, why would they do that? It was because the South African government labeled him a terrorist and convicted him of seditious conspiracy. But, most of all, it was because they felt threatened by his personal determination and willingness to risk and sacrifice for the liberation of his people. 

Although just seeing Mandela from a distance was certainly a thrill, we never had the privilege of meeting him in person. But we have had the privilege of meeting Oscar López Rivera, who has already spent 32 years in prison – five years longer than Mandela did. To paraphrase that apolitical woman, "That's ridiculous! Why would they do that? It's positively inhumane!"

Why would the government – the U.S. government – do that?  It was because they have labeled him a terrorist and convicted him of seditious conspiracy. But, most of all, it was because they felt threatened by his personal determination and willingness to risk and sacrifice for the liberation of his people.

We were privileged to spend time with Rivera last summer in the visitor's room at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind. We met an extraordinary man. He entered the visiting room with his uniform crisply pressed, his posture erect, and his eyes sparkling and scanning his surroundings. He keeps his body fit by rising daily at 4 a.m. to exercise, and is as vigilant about his diet as possible in a prison reality. He keeps his creative spirit vibrant by enduring an unheated space to pursue his artwork. His knowledge – particularly about history, politics and the arts – is encyclopedic, surpassed only by his knowledge and attentiveness to the health, accomplishments, and life struggles of his family and friends. Despite the khaki uniform, armed guards and prison walls, he remains mentally and spiritually free. 

This 70-year-old man of small stature is a giant who carries himself with grace, serenity and dignity. Rivera, a decorated Vietnam veteran, is a father and grandfather who has known his granddaughter only through prison bars. Copies of powerfully-written letters to his granddaughter can be found on the website "El Nuevo Dia." 

Convicted of seditious conspiracy for his acts and beliefs in favor of independence for Puerto Rico, he was sentenced to 70 years in prison without having killed or injured anyone. He endured 12 years of complete isolation in the highest security prisons in the United States, first in Marion, Ill., and then in Florence, Colo., refusing visits for more than a year in order to transform loneliness into solitude.   

Although Rivera has enjoyed the support of various faith communities, union leaders and elected officials across the religious and political spectrum for several years, he has recently gained the support of celebrities like Ricky Martin, who gave a shout-out for him at the Latin Grammy's this month. Other noted artists such as Tony Mapeyé, Andy Montañez, Lucecita Benítez, and Danny Rivera have joined forces to create a CD, "La Lucha Es Vida Toda," and hold concerts in his honor. Thousands of people marched for him in Puerto Rico, New York, and Chicago on Nov. 23 of this year. He is indeed a world figure.

Mandela's 27 years in prison were inhumane, but when he finally walked out of prison, the whole world took notice. President Barack Obama revered Mandela, describing him as one of his most important sources of inspiration. We agree that Mandela's spirit and legacy will live forever.

Rivera's 32 years in prison are equally as inhumane. Our appeal to President Obama is to release him with a small stroke of his pen so we can join the whole world who has taken notice of him as well.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black is the general minister and president of the UCC. The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo is the UCC's executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries.

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