Written by Barbara Baylor, MPH
And you, because of my blood covenant with you, I’ll release prisoners from their hopeless cells. Come home, hope-filled prisoners!” [Zechariah 9:12]
America’s justice system is broken. Our prisons lock up millions of people, ruin lives, fail to make our communities safer, and waste $80 billion dollars a year. In the last several years, there has been growing public dialogue about the need to reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population. Criminal justice reform has been a bipartisan issue for nearly a decade and now Congress is poised to revise four decades of federal policy that has expanded the number of Americans now incarcerated. (Fast Facts on Criminal Justice & Mass Incarceration)
United Church of Christ Historic Witness on Criminal Justice Reform
Throughout its history, the witness of the United Church of Christ General synod has reflected a faithful and prophetic engagement with our calling to address injustice in the cranial justice system. Through its resolutions on criminal justice, the General synod has provided a solid foundation or our continuing work on criminal justice reform. (Learn more about the United Church of Christ and Criminal Justice Reform)
Letters and Action Alerts
Support of: Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), Youth Promise Act, Mercy Act, Juvenile Justice Development Prevention Act, REDEEM Act, Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. Additionally, UCC/JWM served on planning team for the first faith based Capitol Hill Briefing on Criminal Justice Reform.
Ecumenical Advocacy Days Pre-event
Where Do We Go From Here: A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration. Half day forum gathered passionate voices from policy, media, law, faith, youth and impacted communities to examine the current state of the criminal justice system and to create a platform for UCC faith support of criminal justice reform. Over 70 persons attended this event.
Formation of the UCC Criminal Justice Network
Following the UCC Ecumenical Advocacy Days pre-event, the UCC Criminal Justice Network was established to advance the conversation on public policy advocacy related to criminal justice and mass incarceration by maximizing the collective UCC voice at national, state, and local church levels. The Network is compiling information to capture activities, advocacy and formation of partnerships by congregations and individuals in UCC conferences and associations. The Network has approximately 90 members and holds quarterly conference calls.
In addition, Network members will be in collaboration with the Ferguson group led by Rev. Elizabeth Leung so that collective efforts are multiplied and not duplicated.
UCC General Synod Resolutions
Thirtieth General Synod adopted two resolutions: Dismantling Discriminatory Systems of Mass Incarceration in the United States and Dismantling the New Jim Crow. These resolutions reaffirmed the UCC commitment to restorative justice, improving the criminal justice systems of state and federal governments and rearticulated its vision of, and commitment to, the common good concerning the New Jim Crow, which describes the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and re-subjugation of African Americans resulting in the creation of a permanent caste of second-class citizens. Justice and Witness Ministries, 10 conference co-sponsors of the resolutions and the UCC Criminal Justice Network plan to address issues related to these two resolutions through an Implementation Framework that has been drafted to help provide leadership on this issue across all settings of the United Church Christ in the areas of education, training and resources; direct service opportunities; policy advocacy and public witness.
Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition (ICJC)
The United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries actively participates in an interfaith coalition of more than 50 national faith-based organizations and religious institutions uniquely positioned in Washington, DC, to engage in federal advocacy campaigns to address mass incarceration in the United States. ICJC is the only faith-based coalition on Capitol Hill working for criminal justice reforms. During a recent White House phone call on Criminal Justice, a spokesperson from the White House indicated that the faith community is driving this historic moment and that faith voices can make critical differences because values are undergirding the efforts. We are listening to these values to change hearts and minds.
2015 Federal Advocacy:
Hill Visits, Letters
In efforts to support the proposals for legislation to advance criminal justice reform, the Coalition has planned and participated in more than 70 Hill visits to Senators and Representatives. One of the biggest successes of the Coalition this year was in persuading Senator Chuck Grassley (IA), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance legislation on Sentencing Reform. Through countless letters, and visits by prominent faith leaders in his home state of Iowa as well as here in Washington, the Coalition helped convince Senator Grassley that the time is right for reform and resulted in bipartisan legislation S. 2123 – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA). Several sign-on letters were sent to the U. S. Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons and several key senators asking for their support of this legislation. The Coalition has also adopted Criminal Justice Reform Principles.
Capitol Hill Briefing
What are faith voices saying about criminal justice reform? A firsts-ever briefing for senate and house staff with invited national faith leaders helped to convey the importance of criminal justice reform now! Panelists representing diverse religious teachings including one minister directly impacted by the system shared their thoughts on crime prevention, restorative justice, incarceration, juvenile justice, rehabilitation and reentry. Following each briefing, panelists and members for the Coalition visited key Senators and House members to further discuss the importance of the Senate legislation. One successful conversation helped Senator Rand Paul to cosponsor the bill. Americans of the federal prison population
Read stories of our Disciples of Christ and UCC panelists:
- Rev. Dean Bucalos, Disciples of Christ, Op-ed – Time Is Now for Criminal Justice Reform.
- Minister George Chochos, introduced to the UCC by Rev. Martin Copenhaver, President, Andover-Newton Theological School – Yale Divinity School Student Talks About Life Behind Bars.
National Call-in Day and Lobby Day
In collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), the Interfaith Coalition will be flying in faith leaders from key Senate states to lobby for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
S. 2123 – Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA)
Last month with a 15-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent this legislation to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This bipartisan legislation has cleared a major hurdle in the push to overhaul the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would bring a number of reforms to the federal prison system, including an expansion of the "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentences, the creation of a second "safety valve," and rehabilitative programs designed to reduce recidivism, or repeat offenses. Although the faith community had hoped the bill would eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences laws, it is a modest compromise and a first step in creating criminal justice policies that move us closer to fair more equitable system. The Senate bill includes provisions for both Title I-Sentencing Reform and Title II-Corrections Act, which deals with treatment and rehabilitation programs and some juvenile justice issues.
H.R. 3713 – Sentencing Reform Act (SRA)
On November 17, The Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), the U.S. House version of the (S. 2123), was approved unanimously by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Like its Senate counterpart, the bill moves us one step closer to criminal justice reforms. The House version only includes provisions for Title I – Sentencing Reform and not Title II – Corrections Act. The Houses bill also prescribes an additional consecutive sentence of up to five years for offenses involving fentanyl-spiked heroin.
NOTE: S. 2123 and H.R. 3713 are not laws. No one knows if or when these bills may become laws. While both Bills have been voted successfully by their individual Judiciary Committees, they must now be brought before the full Senate and full House for a vote. If votes are favorable in each Chamber, the Bills must be reconciled, meaning that an agreement must be reached on the content and provisions to come up with one final bill.
The Senate Bill contains both sentencing and corrections provisions. Faith advocates need to make sure that the House Bill brings along the elements of both sentencing and corrections by including not only sentencing but elements of juvenile justice and reentry provisions. The Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition supports these bills and is hopeful that both Bills will be brought to their respective floors before the end of the year or by early January.
S.993 – Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015
Bill introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but has not come up for a full Senate vote. Jails are no substitute for a Mental Health System. This bill would improve outcomes for the criminal justice system, the mental health system, and for those with mental health conditions.
S. 2999 and HR 2728 – Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA)
These Bills introduced by Senator Grassley and Whitehouse and Representative Bobby Scott respectively, improve conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities and provide comprehensive services and support for youth in juvenile facilities. S.2999 has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. H.R. 2728 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
S. 1513 and H.R. 3406 – Second Chance Reauthorization Act
These bills have been introduced and referred to respective Senate and House Judiciary Committees. Both bills aim to improve to help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release and avoid reoffending.
What you can do - Action and Advocacy
- Contact your Senator and urge them to cosponsor S. 2123 – Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Urge them to ask Chairman McConnell to bring this bill to the full Senate floor before the end of the year.
- Contact your Representative and encourage them to become a cosponsor of H.R. 3713 – Sentencing Reform Act. Urge them to ask Chairman Ryan to bring this bill to the full House floor before the end of the year.
- Contact your senators and representatives and express your support for S.993, S.2999, H. R. 2728, S. 1513 and H. R. 3406 as listed above.
Following the United Church of Christ Ecumenical Advocacy Days pre-event – Where Do We Go from Here: A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration, Justice and Witness Ministries staff enlisted interested UCC members in establishing the UCC Criminal Justice Network to advance the conversation on public policy advocacy related to criminal justice and mass incarceration by maximizing the collective UCC voice at national, state, and local church levels. Network participants, along with JWM staff and UCC Conferences who co-sponsored GS Resolutions on mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow have drafted an implementation to framework that will serve as a vehicle for assisting the United Church of Christ in all its settings to successfully address this issue, seek a just resolution, coordinated engagement and strategic unity.
Together members of the UCC Criminal Justice Network and UCC National Staff collaborated to draft an implementation framwork for addressing our General Synod Resolutions related to Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow.
Throughout its history, the witness of the United Church of Christ General Synod has reflected a faithful and prophetic engagement with our calling address injustice in the criminal justice system. The United Church of Christ currently joins its ecumenical and interfaith partners across the nation in mobilizing its members to act and speak out against laws that are not just or fair to all communities they are intended to serve and protect. The United States imprisons more of its own people than any other country in the world with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails. More than 60% of people incarcerated in U. S. prison and jails and racial and ethnic minorities.
In order to successfully address issues related to criminal justice reform and mass incarceration and to effectively seek a just resolution, Justice and Witness Ministries in collaboration with sponsoring Conferences have drafted an Implementation Framework to assist the UCC in all of its settings to carry out critical work related to criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, racism and racial/ethnic disparities in the system. The successes of recent General Synod resolutions are built on the assumption that the national setting will provide network coordination and national policy advocacy.
Justice and Witness Ministries recognizes that social change is dependent upon conference and local leadership engagement. Therefore, Conferences will be asked to support a church-wide effort by active involvement and support of the national network work through volunteer leaders and financial resources
The Framework includes four focus areas that are essential for mobilizing local congregations in this work:
1. Education for mobilization, advocacy and service
2. Influence state and federal policy issues
3. Direct service ministries
4. Influence and shape public debate
All focus areas include purpose, process and outcome statements. A Communication’s strategy for the overall Framework has also been included. A consensus on the Framework is expected to be reached in late October after a national steering committee is assembled from suggestions and input from Conferences. In November a national coalition of advocates will be convened and work will begin.
The work on this Framework is an outgrowth from the JWM pre-event at Ecumenical Advocacy Days “A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration,” held in April. Following this successful event, a national Criminal Justice Network was formed. In addition, former General Minister and President Geoffrey Black led several conference call conversations among leaders following the tragic incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. (“Following Ferguson”). Because many of the same persons are participating in both of these networks, it was proposed that they join together to strengthen the movement. A group of national staff and conference/local church leaders have been working closely together to develop an implementation framework for responding to these two resolutions related to criminal justice reform and their intersection with racism.
For more information on the UCC Criminal Justice Network and the Implementation Framework, please contact Barbara Baylor, MPH, Policy Advocate for Domestic Issues – (202) 543-1527 or email at email@example.com.
On December 14th, 2012, the community in which I serve was plunged into trauma and grief by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The cries of a heartbroken world rose up as twenty children and six educators were lost in a horrific event of gun violence. Many UCC clergy and congregations reached out to our congregation here in Newtown offering spiritual, emotional and various forms of tangible support.
One UCC laywoman who telephoned me soon after the event commented, “Things like this just should not happen.” But Sandy Hook happens every week in America. In fact, it happens several times over. Every week in the United States more than 50 of our children and youth die due to gun violence and many dozens more are injured. Most of us just aren’t paying attention.
That’s why I want to invite you, my fellow UCC brothers and sisters, to help one another and our nation to “pay attention.” Please join me in taking part in the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath sponsored by Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which is scheduled for the weekend of December 14-18. Commit yourself and your community to pray about, learn about and act upon an issue that is claiming far too many of our fellow citizens.
On that weekend, please remember my beloved Newtown community but also remember and honor all of the precious lives lost to gun violence. (Since President John F. Kennedy was shot, more US citizens have died in our homes, in our schools and on our streets than have died in ALL of our wars - Revolutionary through Afghanistan/Iraq - combined.)
Friends, this issue of justice reaches to the very core of our faith. According to a recent Gallup poll, 60% of all people who have recently purchased a gun listed “personal safety” as the reason for their purchase. However, statistics from the Center for Disease Control tell us that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a homicide, injury, assault or suicide than to be used to defend oneself. The gun promises safety but far more often delivers grief.
For people of faith this is not Second Amendment issue, it is a Second Commandment crisis.
The near infatuation with the gun is moving dangerously close to becoming a full-blown worship of a false idol. We live in a time when common sense gun safety legislation - like the strengthening of our national background check system cannot pass Congress – even through nearly 90 percent of our citizens support such a law. We have allowed fear and apathy to rule when it comes to guns in America. We have allowed the status quo to become perfectly acceptable. As a result, every year 30,000 precious lives - each one created in God’s image - are added to a tally that is already far too high.
On the weekend of December 14-18 let us commit ourselves to another way of living – let us trust that “perfect love casts out all fear.” And let us follow in the way of the One we call the Prince of Peace.
Rev. Matt Crebbin
Newtown Congregational Church, UCC
Members of the faith community have long advocated for sensible, responsible policies to end gun violence. In 1995, The UCC 20th General Synod passed a resolution entitled “Violence in Our Society and World,” in which it recognized the complicated and interwoven layers at the root of violence.
That same General Synod also passed a resolution entitled “Guns and Violence,” inviting UCC members and congregations to advocate for legislation to strengthen licensing and registration of gun sales, strengthen regulations of gun dealers and ban semiautomatic assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips.
The faith community has come together many times in the aftermath of gun tragedies to urge lawmakers to pass laws that prevent gun violence. Tested by our grief, resolute in our faith we remain committed to continuing this drumbeat.
March for Our Lives
Coming to DC for the March for our Lives? Let us know! You can find our web/print graphics for March for our Lives T-Shirt & Poster by clicking here. We have more information about the march route we'll update you with UCC specific opportunities. RSVP here.
Responding to the Parkland Shooting: Advocate to End Gun Violence in Your Community
- Take Action: Contact your Senators and urge them to oppose the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
- There is a lot you can do to advance gun safety legislation from home. Download our two-page guide for advocacy ideas.
Faith vs. Fear Bible Study
A faith response to gun violence
Want to be a voice for change? Need help?
Check out this guide written for faith and lay leaders to help them answer the tough questions and speak effectively about gun violence prevention!
Traci Blackmon: How are the children?
February 16, 2018
The Rev. Traci Blackmon asks, "How are the children?" A question that seeks to reframe the conversation around serious gun control.
UCC leaders grieve, urge activism after another deadly school shooting in South Florida
February 15, 2018
UCC leaders believe it's past time to stand up to the gun lobbies and advocate for Jesus’ way of peace after another deadly school shooting in South Florida.
UCC general minister and president responds to grief of a community, nation, after Las Vegas shooting
October 02, 2017
The leader of the United Church of Christ, saddened and sickened over the loss of life in a mass shooting Sunday night in Las Vegas, offers prayers for those killed, the injured, their families, the first responders, and those who continue to provide physical and pastoral care in that community.
At General Synod 2017 - Youth voices lead the way on gun violence resolution
July 04, 2017
Guided in large part by the voices of youth, General Synod 2017 enthusiastically passed a resolution of witness urging the recognition of gun violence as a public health emergency deserving of federal funding for scientific research.
Money still talks loudest in gun violence debate
Op-ed by Rev. Matt Crebbin, Newtown Congregational UCC
Commentary: Why We Can't Give Up on Preventing Gun Violence
It is time to reclaim our streets, schools, and workplaces from the threat of gun violence, and it is time to reclaim the power of our vote from narrow special interests that seek to block even modest, common-sense measures to prevent gun violence.
Commentary: Every day is an anniversary
Aurora and Oak Creek made headlines, but the painful truth is that every single day on the calendar is the anniversary of the terrible toll of gun violence, somewhere in America, whether or not it makes the nightly news.
Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence
The UCC's former General Minister and President, the Rev. Geoffrey Black, joined 42 other faith leaders in writing a a letter asking President Obama and members of Congress to, "do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others." The letter supports background checks for those who intend to buy a gun and demands legislation outlawing high capacity weapons and ammunition clips. The letter also declares that gun trafficing should be made a federal crime.
General Synod Policy on Gun Violence
For more than 40 years, the United Church of Christ has affirmed our commitment to improving the criminal justice systems of state and federal governments, citing our belief that prisons should be primarily institutions for the training and rehabilitation of the inmates. We base this affirmation on our call to service, justice, and restoration through faith. To sell facilities to private companies for the purpose of profit is a violation of these fundamental beliefs.
The primary source of income for private prisons is based on the number of people incarcerated. This contradicts our belief that we are all first and foremost children of God, and our bodies are not first and foremost the mechanism for corporate profit-making.
Income for private prisons depends entirely on maintaining a large and stable inmate population. Privatized prison management often demands guaranteed occupancy rates. These guarantees run counter to declining prison population trends, and they violate efforts toward early release, alternative sentencing and other forms of restitution, especially in cases of non-violent crimes.
When corporate profit is the primary purpose of prison ownership, the purpose of prisons to train and rehabilitate inmates is subverted. Rehabilitation is an expensive undertaking, and yields benefits to society as a whole, but is not profitable for shareholders. We believe that rehabilitation is an essential function of prison administration that completely contradicts the purpose of private ownership.
Private prisons have been exempted from public reporting of crimes and escapes and the Freedom of Information Act, among other fundamental legal reporting mechanisms. To privatize prison facilities or their management contradicts all initiatives for public information that can lead to necessary prison reform, and greatly reduces public accountability for the equitable and just safekeeping of convicted persons.
Private prisons have been known to maintain profit by cutting costs in the areas of training and staff remuneration, with the consequence that these prisons raise serious concerns about management, staff competence and supervision, with potential to endanger the populace as a whole.
Private prisons are most active in the incarceration of immigrants, who are often held in detention for indefinite and lengthy periods of time without public accountability or reporting.
We publicly urge that private ownership and operation of state-owned prison facilities be abolished throughout the country.
The United Church of Christ historically has opposed capital punishment. We first formalized this position in 1969 and we have reaffirmed it many times in the years since. In 2005 our General Synod passed a resolution calling for the common good as a foundational idea in the United States. We simply believe that murder is wrong, whether committed by individuals or the state. Currently our churches are working for abolition of the death penalty.
Call on Governor Kasich to Grant Clemency for Arthur Tyler
(April 2014) The UCC has long opposed capital punishment. Now the state of Ohio is ready to execute a man who was wrongfully convicted. Please call Gov. Kasich on Friday, April 25, and urge him to grant clemency to Arthur Tyler.
Ndume Olatushani: Finally Home
(June 2012) Ndume Olatushani (Erskine Johnson) was released from a Tennessee prison on Friday, June 1. He served 26 years, 11 months and 5 days – most of them on death row.
Troy Davis Executed
The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis on September 21, 2011, even though seven of the nine witnesses who testified that he committed murder have recanted their testimony, and one of the two remaining witnesses has been implicated as the actual killer. The original judge in his case said his ruling was “not ironclad” and the original prosecutor has said that he has reservations about Davis’s guilt. Read reflections from the UCC:
The prison industrial complex refers to the tremendous growth in commerce to private companies that own and operate prisons, and to businesses that supply prisons with goods and services.
These companies have a strong lobbying base, and present themselves as jobs-creators and an effective solution to issues of unemployment, crime, and other social problems. However, private businesses that serve, operate or own prisons are like other business entities. Their first priority is not rehabilitation, nor is it reduction of crime. These are public interests, and require public accountability.
Today, prisons are a big business. Until recently, they have been a growth industry, especially in rural areas with small populations and little other commerce.
Governments invest heavily in managing criminal justice facilities and activities. Estimates of unduplicated expenditures by city, county, state and federal governments approach $300 billion a year. Prisons require large staffs that are highly trained.
The prison population, which tends to be sicker and more troubled than the general community, must be fed, clothed, housed and supervised. Prisons represent a market for locks, construction, transportation and surveillance equipment.
Partly in response to the high cost of housing a burgeoning prison population, there is a growing trend to privatize prison management and ownership. For-profit entities have tended to take on minimum security facilities – the least expensive – and to reduce programs to save costs. A key issue in privatization is reduced public access, accountability and control.
- Opposing Privatization of Prisons: Talking Point
- General Synod 21 resolution - Prison industrial complex
"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system – in prison, on probation, or on parole – than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America – more than six million – than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height." —Adam Gopnik, "The Caging of America," The New Yorker, January 30, 2012
Here is a shared letter from a friend, Rev. Philip Reller of Arizona.
In Matthew’s oft-recalled “Judgment of the Nations” the king will say to the sheep, “I was in prison and you visited me” and the unknowing righteous will ask “when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mathew 25: 34-46 NRSV)
Jesus is intimate with his family. He is specific about visiting prisoners. We are called to embody Jesus’ heart and show forth his compassion to prisoners.
It is a very practical ministry of - Incarnation – love made visible in the flesh. Being there. Ours are a new set of ears listening to immensely consequential stories which have worn thin in the retelling to familiar cell and pod mates. Ours are new conversations and new perspectives.
It is a ministry of advocacy. Being there. The men I visit are cut off by thousands of miles from their families, communities, and support systems in private for-profit prisons. They are treated as strange enemies and are forced into culturally and religiously molded programs of “rehabilitation” which strip them of their cultural identity and dignity. Visiting allows us to witness their struggle and speak as allies for rehabilitation and respectful treatment.
It is a ministry of reconciliation. Being there. I have been allowed to share first hand reports of the condition of their sons, husbands, and daddies with families who have been estranged or ashamed or in the confusion of unresolved anger and grief. Appropriate sharing can build bridges towards forgiveness and new relationships. It can calm deep anxieties. It can pave the way for connections that create positive re-entry.
- Seven million citizens are active in the US criminal justice system.
- 2.2 million US sisters and brothers are incarcerated.
- 1 in every 100 men, 1 in every 1700 women resides in a state or federal facility.
- The US incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world.
- The fastest growing industry in Arizona is the private for-profit prison industry.
What do these facts tell us about our country, our communities, our relationships? What do we as people of faith, both the incarcerated and those on the outside, have to say about these realities? How do they call us to be engaged as Jesus’ family?
Visiting the incarcerated becomes a prophetic ministry. It changes lives. It opens doors to find solutions. It fills deep empty places with hope and love.
Let us come together to support renewed ministries for and with prisoners and their families, to seek alternatives to current culturally-biased, punitive rather than restorative criminal justice stances, and let us create networks of covenant partners for education, advocacy, and presence with our incarcerated sisters and brothers.
Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and the positions of the United Church of Christ, the United Nations, and other bodies calling for their release.
- Commentary: A Word on Freedom: Oscar Lopez Rivera's 32 years in prison are 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. (12/15/2013)
- Letter of Thanks from Carlos Alberto Torres, Puerto Rican Nationalist
From its inception, the United Church of Christ has affirmed its support for fundamental human rights, and has acknowledged the dignity and worth of each person. We are called to care for prisoners and to set free the oppressed, reminded that Jesus himself was imprisoned and murdered, and that even the patriarchs before him were oppressed and in held unjustly prison. The setting free of captives was central to the ministry of Jesus, who read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4
In 1980 and 1981, the F.B.I. and the U.S. National Guard in Puerto Rico removed 30 Puerto Rican men and women without notifying the Governor of Puerto Rico, and charged them with arms possession and conspiracy against the United States government. Those arrested believed that the U.S. government was a colonial power operating within Puerto Rico, and refused to participate in the U.S. judicial system that tried them. The group requested war court trials in accordance with a number of United Nations declarations, which were refused. Some of the 30 were tried and sentenced within the U.S. judicial system; others were released because there was no valid evidence against them. Of those convicted in U.S. courts, the average sentence was 71.6 years for the men, and 72.8 years for the women – roughly 20 times greater than sentences for others convicted of similar crimes. Their sentences and the conditions of their arrest are considered by many throughout the world to have been politically motivated, excessive, and in violation of international law. International human rights groups have cited the similarity between the case of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for an attempted overthrow of the apartheid regime, and that of the Puerto Rican prisoners arrested, charged, and incarcerated for their fight against U.S. control of Puerto Rican sovereignty.
Ultimately, 14 Puerto Rican nationalists were incarcerated in the United States. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 12 of these men and women after they had served from 16 to 19 years of their sentences, which originally ranged from 35 to 90 years. He did so because, in his words, “they were serving extremely lengthy sentences…out of proportion to their crimes.” Two other nationalists – Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar Lopez Rivera -- did not accept the terms, and were not released. Carlos Alberto was eventually paroled in 2010. In January 2011, Oscar Lopez appeared before a parole examiner, who recommended that he remain incarcerated.
The United Church of Christ stands in solidarity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with United Nations in its repeated resolutions of support for people who struggle against domination by alien powers In the1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People (Resolution 1514, adopted in1960), the U.N. recognized that people of the world ardently desire the end of colonialism, welcomed the emergence of dependent territories into freedom and independence, and proclaimed the inalienable right for all people to freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty, and the integrity of their national territory. U.N. Resolution 2621, adopted by the General Assembly in 1970, declares continuation of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations a crime violating the U.N. Charter, and reaffirms the inherent right of colonial people to struggle by all necessary means against colonial powers which suppress their aspiration for freedom and independence. In 1973, the U.N. published basic principles of the legal status of combatants who struggle against alien domination and racist regimes (Resolution 3103, adopted by the General Assembly December 12, 1973), reaffirming its prior declarations and calling to mind repeated calls to the body for support for colonized people. Specifically, the United Nations proclaims that the struggle of people under colonial domination is legitimate, that attempts to suppress the struggle against colonial domination is incompatible with the U.N. Charter and with principles of international law, and declares that combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination who are captured as prisoners are to be accorded the status of prisoners of war, entitled to protection under the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1949. In similar resolutions, the U.N. has declared a right for protection of persons detained or imprisoned as a result of their struggle against apartheid, racism, colonialism, and foreign occupation (Resolution 32/122, December 16, 1977), calling upon member states to support and assist those who fight for national independence from foreign occupation. The U.N. also declared a universal recognition of the right of people to self-determination, and the speedy granting of independence to colonial countries for the effective guarantee of human rights (Resolution 33/24, November 29, 1978).
These Declarations, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are available in their entirety at www.un.org. The United Nations encourages their distribution and duplication as a means to support education on the subject of human rights, from a broad and international perspective.
In light of international law, and based on a call for social justice and human rights, and founded in its faith in the teachings of Christ, the United Church of Christ has joined with many other religious and secular bodies over the past three decades in calling for self-determination for Puerto Rico and amnesty for political prisoners of conscience. In 1979, the United Church of Christ called for release of four Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners who were concerned with the political independence of Puerto Rico, and who attacked the Blair House and other sites on Capitol Hill, as a result of which they were convicted and imprisoned more than 25 years before. The position of the United Church of Christ at that time was to support their release, given the extended sentences they had served, and in solidarity with the U.S. Justice Department which recommended their release in 1978, these prisoners should be released. U.C.C. Resolution 79-GS-87 called for a presidential pardon for these prisoners, and in so doing, supported similar calls by the Puerto Rican Council of Protestant Churches, high bodies of the Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches in Puerto Rico and the United States, the National Council of Churches, former governors of Puerto Rico, both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, labor unions, professional organizations, student councils, cultural groups, political organizations, and ten U.S. Congressmen who had written to the U.S. government expressing similar concerns. This position, shared as it was by so many other bodies, was founded on principles of mercy, love and reconciliation as the foundation of human rights concerns.
In 1985, the General Synod voted to adopt a resolution (85-GS-71) on the discriminatory treatment of prisoners of conscience, especially as they concerned women prisoners of conscience, citing Christ’s concern for those who were in captivity and in prison, and the foundational call to bring attention to the cry for justice and mercy for prisoners who are subjected to harsh and unmitigated conditions. In 1989 (89-GS-89), the United Church of Christ General Synod adopted a resolution on the Ministry to Prisoners of Conscience, recalling the Christian responsibility to address the needs of prisoners and calling to mind that Jesus himself was held prisoner. The United Church of Christ again acknowledged maltreatment of prisoners of conscience, and encouraged local congregations to reach out to prisoners of conscience and their families, and to effect visits and to call for an end to discriminatory treatment. In so doing, the United Church of Christ supported the prison ministries of many other denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Disciples of Christ among them) who had adopted similar resolutions and had joined with the U.C.C. in this work.
In 1991, the United Church of Christ called for self determination for Puerto Rico, and amnesty for prisoners of conscience (91-GS-85). The U.C.C. General Assembly called for the immediate and unconditional amnesty to all Puerto Rican prisoners of conscience, as defined by Amnesty International, the granting of amnesty to advocates of independence who were in exile, and an end to the prosecution of advocates of independence.
Similarly, in 1995 (95-GS-63), the General Synod recognized 100 years of U.S. colonialism in six island nations in Guam, Eastern (American) Samoa, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and called upon the government of the United States to affirm the rights of native peoples to self-determination.
For information on the positions of other denominations and bodies, see the Statement of the Methodist Church, “Free the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners,” adopted by the General Board of Church and Society in 1995; a statement calling for release of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners approved by the Board of Directors, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America on February 10, 1995; a resolution calling for unconditional and immediate amnesty for the Puerto Rican political prisoners by the Episcopal Church of Puerto Rico on October 22, 2995; and multiple calls by Nobel Laureates (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and others); Human Rights Organizations (including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, European Human Rights Foundation, the Institute for Ghandian Studies, and others); labor unions; other religious communities (including the World Council of Churches and other international bodies); representatives of other countries (including Northern Ireland, the Caribbean, Australia, New South Wales, Nicaragua, and Mexico); and elected officials of the United States and Puerto Rico.
A United Church of Christ congregation in Texas has been told it cannot participate in an evangelical Christian program that assists children of prisoners because of the church's outspoken gay-friendly stance.
The Rev. Dan De Leon, pastor of Friends Congregational UCC in College Station, Texas, said he learned this summer that his church was disqualified from Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which encourages churches to buy Christmas presents for the children of inmates.
Prison Fellowship officials said the church's stance on homosexuality, declared on its Web site, represented a disagreement about basic scriptural doctrine.
"For a church to qualify for Angel Tree, its beliefs must be consistent with our Statement of Faith, including being Trinitarian and accepting the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life," reads a July 24 letter the church received from Prison Fellowship.
The church provided a copy of the letter to Religion News Service.
"As we have looked at the doctrine and beliefs of your church in light of our Statement of Faith and partnering guidelines, we have determined that your church does not qualify as part of our program."
De Leon said he called the regional office of Prison Fellowship and was told his church was disqualified because it belongs to the UCC's "Open and Affirming" program that welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
"Personally it came as a shock and when it was shared with the congregation, it was equally shocking," said De Leon, whose church draws an average of 120 worshippers on Sunday. "The emotions ran from anger to confusion to just the wind being taken out of our sails as a community initially."
David Lawson, senior vice president of Prison Fellowship, called the situation "one unfortunate incident" and said "very few" of the more than 12,000 participating churches have been disqualified or disqualified themselves from the Angel Tree program. Such cases usually involve differing views about homosexuality or creation, he said.
He said the Angel Tree program is not limited to Christmas presents but aims for a year-round "full relationship" between churches and prisoners' children, involving them in congregational programs.
"We want to make sure that the churches that we partner with are compatible with our values, our statement of faith," said Lawson, who is based in Lansdowne, Va.
The Texas church has participated in the program for five years and been "Opening and Affirming" since 1996. In recent years, Prison Fellowship has reviewed Angel Tree participants to ensure that churches are compatible with a recently revised mission statement that urges a focus on "transformation," he said.
The United Church of Christ has seen other repercussions from its stance on homosexuality. In July, an insurer refused to offer coverage to a UCC church in Adrian, Mich., saying its pro-gay stance put it at "a higher risk" of property damage and litigation. In recent years, major television networks have rejected UCC ads as "too controversial."
The Texas congregation has drafted a letter to Prison Fellowship, signed by more than 120 parishioners and supporters, to express its dismay at being removed from the program.
"We are disheartened that Prison Fellowship has chosen to lean more heavily on small matters of doctrinal disagreements than on much larger matters of theological authenticity and compassion, which demand that we Christians must love one another if anyone will ever believe that we truly follow Christ," the letter said.
UCC President John H. Thomas wrote a letter of support to the congregation, and encouraged them to respond to Prison Fellowship.
"I pray that those who receive your letter will be challenged by its message and, by God's grace, transformed," Thomas wrote.
De Leon said church members will meet to determine new ways to help children in the community.
Lawson said even though Prison Fellowship is no longer aligned with the College Station congregation, "we affirm them in their desire to serve these children."