Sr. Helen Prejean Challenges Students To Think About The Dignity Of Life
Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ author of "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” spoke to students, faculty, parents, grandparents, and community members at Oldenburg Academy on October 12 at 1:00 pm in the Auditorium.
Sr. Helen began her discussion by explaining that she had no idea what she was getting into when she began her death row ministry. She was living in a housing project in New Orleans serving with the underprivileged when a friend asked her to be an inmate’s pen pal. She accepted. Sr. Helen became the inmate’s spiritual advisor before she knew what crime he had committed or that he was on death row. She knew that he needed someone and she felt called to help. Even when she found out that he had been sentenced to the death penalty, she didn’t think he would actually die. It had been 20 years since someone had been executed. She also didn’t know that she would be with him during his execution.
During the course of her ministry, Sr. Helen has been with a total of six inmates during their executions. She said she has often been scared during this journey, but that she focused on the inmate and God gave her the grace as each moment happened. “Being human means being tested,” she explained. “Tough things happen in our lives and we don’t know what will come in the future.” “God has led me to a place I never expected to go.”
“Outrage at the death of innocent people is ethical,” said Sr. Helen. “The crimes that inmates on death row have been sentenced for are as bad as it gets.” She was “horrified at the crime” that the first inmate she advised had committed.
The Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty, and polls show that most Americans support it. A Gallup poll released on October 13, just one day after Sr. Helen’s speech, states, “Sixty-one percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.” Sr. Helen said that many people think that justice will be served through execution; that it will give closure to the families of the victims, honor their dead children, and help them heal.
Sr. Helen has befriended family members of the victims as well as being a spiritual advisor to those on death row. One man whose son was murdered taught her that, “forgiveness isn’t just for others” and that at first he wanted the inmate to be executed but he “didn’t like that feeling of hatred.” Another father was glad that the man who was convicted of his daughter’s murder wore a bulletproof vest because “he deserves to die and I want to kill him,” but in time he remembered that his daughter was against the death penalty and realized that he didn’t want the murderer to be executed either.
At the beginning of her ministry, Sr. Helen assumed that everyone on death row was guilty. She trusted the US court system as being one of the best. Since then she has found that isn’t always the case. “138 people have come off death row because they got the wrong person,” she said. Often college students are the ones who do the research.
Sr. Helen challenged attendees to “uphold the dignity of all life, not just innocent life.” She challenged students to learn more about the death penalty, to really think about it, to learn about the practice and not just the theory, and to sound it out in their souls. Does the death penalty really deter crime? What happens to us [as a society] because of it? If you decide that it’s wrong then you have a moral obligation to act against it.
Student response to Sr. Helen’s discussion was positive, with many students saying, “she was interesting,” “it made me think,” and “she was a great speaker.” A number of students went up to Sr. Helen after her speech and thanked her.
“Sr. Helen didn’t say ‘this is what you should believe,’ ” said senior Erin Moll. “She asked us to go home and think about it.”
“It was great having a real life portrayal instead of just watching the movie,” said junior Peter Lamping.
“Sr. Helen made us think about the loss the murder’s family has when they are executed,” said junior Natasha Hockaden.
“It was interesting and it was a different perspective,” said junior Elise Comer. “People don’t usually consider the inmates as human.”