Two of the United Church of Christ's national officers will visit the longest-held political prisoner in Puerto Rican history Friday, Aug. 3. The Rev. Linda Jaramillo and UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black will provide pastoral leadership and care to Oscar López Rivera,who has been imprisoned for 31 years.
"It’s been a longtime mission of the church," said Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministry. "We feel a strong commitment to support the movement to get him released, but we wanted to visit him and offer pastoral care."
The Rev. Sala W.J. Nolan Gonzales, the UCC's minister for criminal justice and human rights, will travel with Black and Jaramillo to the Terra Haute, Ind., prison, and said the group hopes to spend about four hours with López Rivera, 70. He has spent a majority of his imprisonment in solitary confinement at maximum-security prisons. "You have to go through a tremendous amount of work just for a casual visit," Nolan Gonzales said.
The U.S. government identified López Rivera as a leader of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican Nationalist group linked to more than 100 bombings and five deaths in the 1970s. During his 1980-81 trial, López Rivera considered himself a political prisoner and did not defend himself. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit sedition and sentenced to federal prison for 55 years.
The UCC has advocated for the release of political prisoners since 1991, and in 2011 passed a Synod resolution seeking the release of López Rivera and another man, Avelino González Claudio.
Jaramillo said she has met other Puerto Rican political prisoners, 11 of whom accepted clemency from President Clinton in August 1999, but this is the first time she will meet López Rivera. His sister, Zenaida López has said he turned Clinton's offer of clemency down because it would have been placed him on parole. He was seeking a full pardon, Nolan Gonzales said.
Asked what she would tell López Rivera, Jaramillo said, "I just want to let him know we care a lot about him, his well-being, that we continue to advocate for his release — and tell him that directly … I'm looking forward to meeting him. I've heard good things about his character."
President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even United Nations representatives have spoken out about the case. National and international organizations have questioned the length of the sentences, which Jaramillo and Nolan described as an "injustice."
Jaramillo said that there is a struggle with the injustice of the length of his imprisonment, and the details of the facts to his story. "I would encourage people to read this story with an open heart and open mind," she said.
One member of the group released in 2010, Carlos Alberto Torres, has a painting displayed on the second floor of the UCC's national offices in Cleveland.