Death-penalty opponent speaks of her activist roots - Catholic Courier

Death-penalty opponent speaks of her activist roots

PITTSFORD — Death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean recalled that she was once a mild-mannered seventh- and eighth-grade religion teacher.

"I wasn’t one of those ruler-slapping nuns," Sister Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, said during a talk at Nazareth College’s Linehan Chapel April 21.

Neither was she a nun who would hike up her habit on a march to protest racial injustices. She said her idea of joining the civil-rights movement was to be able to play "Blowin’ in the Wind" on her guitar, using the only four chords she knew.

But a speech by another sister challenged her to consider whether she was living out Jesus’ message of social equality.

That’s when she began to get involved in social-justice issues. Several decades later, Sister Prejean’s name pops up first in an Internet search of the phrase "death-penalty nun." Her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, was a best-seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn; Sarandon won an Oscar for her performance. Sister Prejean also has penned The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Execution and is working on her third book, River of My Fire: My Spiritual Journey to Death Row, in addition to campaigning against the death penalty.

Speaking to a mixed crowd comprising students, college staff and Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Prejean recalled her journey to becoming a vocal death-penalty opponent and spoke about counseling death-row inmates and families victimized by violence. Her visit was followed by a reception and cake for her 69th birthday.

Sister Prejean said her social-justice journey started small. She moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in the early 1980s and began teaching high-school dropouts at Hope House, a center that assists public-housing residents. There, she began to listen to her neighbors, who told her about the racism and social challenges they faced.

One day she happened to agree to become a pen pal of a death-row inmate.

"I wrote to Patrick Sonnier, and the big problem was he wrote back," Sister Prejean said.

Eventually, Sonnier asked her to visit him in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which is how Sister Prejean began serving as his spiritual adviser. He had been convicted of raping a young teen and killing her and her boyfriend on a rural Lover’s Lane. She unsuccessfully attempted to argue against his execution, and ultimately was the only one to witness it in person.

"You are not going to die without someone there to recognize your dignity," she told Sonnier.

She also served in the same capacity for prisoner Robert Willie, who also was executed. In addition to working with prisoners, she founded "Survive," which provides counseling and support for grieving families. Though she had been fearful of contacting victims’ families, the father of one of Sonnier’s victims, Lloyd LeBlanc, helped her get over this fear.

"He said, ‘Sister, where have you been all this time?’" Sister Prejean said. "‘You never once came to see us. You can’t believe the pressure we are under for this death penalty.’"

Sister Prejean was further touched when LeBlanc prayed for Sonnier’s mother.

"He was the first one who ever taught me forgiveness is strength," she said.

His epiphany against the death penalty came when he remembered how his daughter, who had been killed by Sonnier and an accomplice, had previously called the death penalty revenge.

"Am I going to be honoring my daughter, or am I going to be going for my own journey of revenge because they killed my daughter?" LeBlanc had questioned.

She noted that while some parents can’t get enough of an execution, other parents have pointed out that additional violence will not bring their loved ones back. She asked those in the crowd to consider what they are doing to reach out to victims of violence, such as holding an annual Mass of healing for them.

"Some of us go into prison, and some of us reach out to murder victims’ families," Sister Prejean said.

While stating that the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church does not exclude the death penalty as recourse, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that nonlethal means of punishment are more in keeping with common good and with the dignity of the human person.

"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent,’" the catechism states, quoting Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.

Sister Prejean argued that the death penalty is not necessary. Her reasons include inconsistencies in how it has been applied across racial and economic lines in the United States. She also contended that defenses in many capital cases are subpar.

She also encouraged the crowd to get involved in social-justice issues, and cited several examples of social advocates.

"Grace doesn’t come to us ahead of time," Sister Prejean said. "It comes up from under us."

She acknowledged that social advocates are often met with violence, dating back to Christ, who she contends was killed because he threatened the status quo. She said he had welcomed women and children into his community, and some of his followers were not strict about observing Jewish law.

"It was the community he inaugurated that was so radical," Sister Prejean said.

Nadine Roman of Greece, a Nazareth College senior who is a parishioner of Irondequoit’s St. Josaphat Ukranian Catholic Church, said she was very impressed with a metaphor Sister Prejean used of Jesus on the cross, stretching people’s ideologies on the death penalty.

Nazareth College freshman Katie Norton of Ithaca said she was struck by Sister Prejean’s argument of not combating violence with violence and hate with hate.

"I didn’t expect to stay for the whole thing," Norton said at the end of the talk. "I had never heard of her."

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