Sister Helen Prejean's Journey Continues

Thursday, November 15, 2018

by Kevin Donahue

Sister Helen Prejean's first visit to a prison to meet a prisoner on death row was intimidating — the orders from the guards, the harsh sounds of doors being unlocked and locked again. And that was before meeting the convicted killer.

It changed, though, Prejean told a rapt audience at the Chapel of Saint Joseph on Wednesday, Nov. 14, when she saw the prisoner himself.

"I saw his face for the first time and I couldn't believe how human he was," she said. "I could see by his face he was human."

That sense of humanity — of people capable of the most terrible acts but also capable of redemption, forgiveness and compassion — has fueled Prejean's advocacy against the death penatly. Her work with one inmate was the focus of her book, "Dead Man Walking," and the 1995 movie of the same name. Prejean's campus talk, "Dead Man Walking: the Journey Continues," chronicled her ongoing effort. It was sponsored by the Faith-Justice Institute’s Joseph William and Madeline Eberle Klein Fund, which offers educational events aimed at addressing greater inclusion of marginalized populations in the Catholic Church.

Prejean also focused on another element of the human condition: vulnerability. She admitted that one of the biggest mistakes she made in her initial work with death row inmates was avoiding the families of the victims. That ended at a court hearing for an inmate, when she ran into the families of two victims. 

One, visibly angry, walked by her. The father of the other victim walked up to her and asked, "Where have you been, Sister Helen? You're there helping the killers, but what about my family?" He asked her to come and pray with him one morning.

"People are honest when they pray," Prejean said. "This man's heart became clear to me. He said to me, 'People think forgivenes is weak ... you have to know Sister, I was a kind man, but I was losing it, I was angry all the time. I was losing me.

"I kept thinking of Jesus and thinking, 'They killed my boy, but I'm not going to let them kill me.' "

The nun, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph based in New Orleans, also spoke of talking to Pope Francis about her opposition to the death penalty, asking him, "Where is the dignity?" In August, the Pope declared capital punishment "inadmissable."

Prejean lauded local efforts, including groups in Pennsylvania committed to prohibiting capital punishment in the state, the criminal reform work of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and the University's own Inside Out program, which brings together SJU students and adult students who are incarcerated for a class that meets weekly inside a correctional facility. 

"Miracles happen, like your DA in Philadelphia," she said. "Consciousness changes, people can change."

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