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Oscar Lopez Rivera: A Man of Hope

The United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute

The United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute

A Federal penitentiary is not where one might imagine learning how to find hope in today’s world. However, that may be because one has never visited Oscar Lopez Rivera.

Oscar Lopez is a Puerto Rican political prisoner who has served 35 years in multiple high security prisons, 12 of which were in solitary confinement. He is the longest held political prisoner in the history of Puerto Rico, and one of the longest held in the world. Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora, as well as their political partners at 8th Day Center hold him in the deepest respect for his integrity, his courage and honesty.

Oscar’s crime, according to Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “is conspiracy to free his (Puerto Rican) people from the shackles of imperial justice.”

On Memorial weekend, Sister Denise Wilkinson, a friend and general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and I drove from our motherhouse to the Terre Haute Federal Prison for our first visit.

During a visit to a Federal prison system, one can always expect a few bumps along the way … and we had some. For instance, we were refused entry because Sister Denise wore sandals – not proper prison wear, we learned. This meant getting back in our car and driving to the local Dollar Store to buy a pair of cheap canvas shoes. The winner here is clearly the local economy and the Dollar Store owner. Ah, the prison system!

Once in the visiting room with some 50-plus inmates and their loved ones, we waited in airport-type seating arrangements sitting across the two-foot aisle with another set of such seats facing us. After a long wait, Oscar came smiling through the door and greeted us like old friends. After pleasantries, Sister Denise asked Oscar how old he was when he came from Puerto Rico to the United States. With this question, Oscar never stopped talking as he shared story upon story of his life from Puerto Rico to Chicago’s Westside. We heard stories about his mother, his time in Vietnam, and his community organizing days. All of this was intertwined with what he’s reading, his opinion about the state of the political scene at this time and more. He always had one more story or idea he wanted to share with us.

After more than one hour of listening to his stories, we asked where he finds hope in life given his life of 35 years in Federal prison.

Without a moment of hesitation, he answered in short by saying, “One needs three things in life to live in hope. The first is: One has to have a purpose in life. Why do we do what we do? Second, one needs to have a sense of humor because there are too many ironies not to be amused. And thirdly, one needs to be kind, one needs to have compassion toward others because there’s always someone worse off than you are.”

Oscar’s smile and twinkling eyes just exuded the peace-filled, hope-filled, kindly person that he is. No barbed-wire fences or prison walls have stripped Oscar of his genuine, holy humanity.

Indeed, I learned a lesson about hope in being with Oscar that day. If ever someone deserves to be free from prison walls, it’s Oscar Lopez Rivera. May it be so!

Learn more about the campaign to free Oscar here.

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Sister Kathleen Desautels

Sister Kathleen served as the Sisters of Providence representative to 8th Day Center for Justice, a coalition of Catholic religious congregations committed to act as a critical alternative voice to oppressive systems and to work actively to change those systems. She currently volunteers in Chicago, Illinois.

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2 Comments

  1. FlorenceNorton on June 25, 2016 at 8:37 am

    WoW! Just think of all the good he could have been doing in Puerto Rico all these years! Actually,Puerto Rico needs him badly right now. They’ve been in the news for months now not being able to keep above water financially. The orange ribbon that so many of us wear is to release prisioners who have been held so long without due process.

  2. Sharon RODRIGUEZ on June 29, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Truly an inspiration! Thank you SO much for sharing his story.

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