April 7, 2010

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ Speaks at Wyant Lecture Series

Emmanuel College welcomed Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, known internationally for her tireless work against the death penalty, as the keynote speaker for the latest installment of the Wyant Lecture Series on March 30th. She discussed "Dead Man Walking - The Journey Continues" with an audience in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall.

The Wyant lecture marked Sister Helen's second visit to the campus, as she previously spoke at one of Emmanuel's annual Sister Marie Augusta Neal Lectures. Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SND served as an inspiration for Sister Helen along both her spiritual journey and career as a writer. In her introduction, Emmanuel President Sister Janet Eisner, SND proudly welcomed Sister Helen back to the College, highlighting Emmanuel's own interpretation of Sister Helen's book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, through a theatre club performance. The book became a best seller, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and spawned an Oscar-winning movie and an internationally acclaimed opera.

"We are especially delighted to welcome Sister Helen back to Emmanuel," said Sister Janet. "It was very significant to me when 'Dead Man Walking' was performed here at Emmanuel, with our own students playing the roles of Sister Marie Augusta and Sister Helen. Seeing this play produced here was very moving because we know these two people so well. They have a very special place in our hearts."

Sister Helen opened her lecture with a brief background of her life and what led her to "wake up" to social justice issues. Growing up in the south in a rather privileged family, she alluded to her life as "a goldfish swimming in a fishbowl." She explained that she did not see, therefore she did not understand, the injustices of the world surrounding her. She acknowledged that at this early stage in her life she was asleep to the world around her and when you are not awake, you do not act.

"When we wake up on something, when we get it, it releases an energy that can last us the rest of our lives," said Sister Helen.

She admitted to the audience that she was always one to resist social justice issues; never moved to action by these issues because she did not understand them. It was not until she was forced on a retreat in 1980 featuring guest speaker Sister Marie Augusta Neal who discussed issues of social justice that Sister Helen was inspired to redirect her ministry. When Sister Marie Augusta explained that poverty was not God's will and that helping those in need was integral to the mission of the church, Sister Helen realized that Jesus was among the poor and she did not even know the poor in her own community.

Sister Helen reminisced on the retreat and meeting Sister Marie Augusta as a moment of "grace," where she learned something new and woke up to a reality that she did not comprehend before. She then moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in 1981 and began working at Hope House, a center that assists public housing residents. She detailed to the audience the hardships of those living in her community; violence, deaths of friends and family, lack of educational support for youths, and many other day-to-day struggles. She began reading books by authors dedicated to social justice such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi and Dorothy Day and started a newspaper called Flambeau, in reference to the flame used to light the Mardis Gras parades, expressing a Catholic voice for justice.

"The movements towards human rights always start with a small group of people sitting around thinking 'what are we going to do' and who then act on it," she said.

During this time, she was asked to correspond with a death row inmate and became his spiritual adviser. In his reply to her initial letter Pat mentioned that he had never had a visitor moving Sister Helen to go see him. She admitted to the audience that she was shocked when she saw his face, expecting him to look different, or less human, after the crimes he had committed.

"This is when I had another moment of grace," said Sister Helen. "I realized that no matter what he had done, he was worth more. He was worth more than the worst thing he had ever done in his life."

Sister Helen explained the injustices of the court systems, and the difficulties of those being prosecuted when it comes to obtaining a viable defense lawyer. She stated that many cases are "like a high school football team playing against the Green Bay Packers" and that the accused, even those who are innocent, often have no chance at justice.

She chronicled her time as a spiritual advisor and the difficulties of adjusting to the confusing reality of death row; her fear of speaking with the parents of the victims of the murder committed by the inmate in whom she was advising and the unexpected turn of events when the father of one of the victims expressed the guilt he felt about not wanting the murderer to receive a death sentence.

Ultimately, the inmate was found guilty and given the death penalty. Although he requested that she leave the room at the time of his death, Sister Helen refused, wanting to be sure there was one person in the room who loved him and knew that he was worth more. She explained to the audience that the strength she felt when she told Pat to look into her eyes as he died was unexpected.

"Grace comes up inside us when we need it, not ahead of time, but just when we need it," she said.

Since 1984, Sister Helen has divided her time between campaigning against the death penalty and counseling individual death row prisoners. This experience raised her concerns that some of those executed were not guilty, which inspired her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, released in 2004. Today Sister Helen works with the Death Penalty Discourse Center, the Moratorium Campaign and the Dead Man Walking Play Project. She is presently at work on another book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey to Death Row.

The Wyant Lecture Series features speakers in the Humanities, History and the Arts. The Louise Doherty Wyant professorship was established by the late Louise Doherty Wyant '63 and her husband, Dr. James Wyant, in honor of Sister Anne Cyril Delaney, SND.