Advocate to Missouri audience: State's death penalty situation is not a local issue

St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, right, talks to the audience during a visit to Kansas City, Mo. This was one of two events Oct. 30, an address at Avila University. (GSR photo / Dawn Arajuo-Hawkins)

October 30, prominent death penalty opponent and St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean was in Kansas City to discuss Missouri’s capital punishment situation. (Missouri executes death row inmates faster than any other state — reportedly about one a month, outpacing even Texas’ per capita execution rate.)

I was at Prejean’s afternoon talk at Avila University, and I promise  I will tell you everything she said. However, before delving into this serious and somber issue, I want to briefly mention two joyous things. First, if you pay attention to bylines, you may have noticed that I’m writing under a shiny new name. I’m officially a married woman! Whoo hoo! Second, THE ROYALS WON THE WORLD SERIES,AND IT WAS AMAZING. “Euphoric” only touches the surface of what the atmosphere was like that night in Kansas City. I have never high-fived so many strangers in my life.

But back to Sr. Helen Prejean.

About 50 people came to Avila’s Kay Orscheln Memorial Chapel to hear Prejean’s talk, a handful of them students. With her Louisiana drawl, the self-described Southern story-teller did just that: told stories, interweaving the tale of how she — the white daughter of a well-off lawyer in the segregated South — came to understand the sin of institutional racism with the story of the country’s current criminal justice system, which she sees as sinful in many ways — not least of all in its discrimination against black people.  

“Boy, when you look at the actual executioners in this country,” Prejean said in her presentation, “they are former slave states: my state — Louisiana — Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Florida and Missouri. . . . We can’t just simply say slavery’s over. The legacy of slavery is with us in the prison system in so many ways. And the death penalty just caps it all.”

Prejean also noted many, if not most, of the states known for executions are in the so-called Bible Belt, meaning they are also known for their commitment to evangelical Christianity. Prejean finds the mix of Jesus and lethal injections an odd pairing, especially given that it was reading the Gospels — specifically Matthew 25 — that nudged her into her current ministry.

She recounted how it was while reading Jesus’ well-known teaching on loving the marginalized, including prisoners, that a light suddenly went off in her head.

“Sometimes you read the scriptures, and sometimes the scriptures read you,” Prejean said. Christians, she said, are called to be a “people of justice.” Then, looking at the chapel’s crucifix, she added that when it comes to the death penalty, Christians should emulate the crucified Jesus’ posture by extending one arm to death row inmates and one arm to their victims’ families. Both are in need of healing.

After Prejean’s presentation, she and Staci Pratt, state coordinator for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, answered questions from the audience. Given the dismal state of the criminal justice system, as painted by Prejean, one Avila University student asked if perhaps the prison system should focus more on rehabilitation. Chuckling, Prejean answered, “I think you’re on to something!”

Prejean later told Global Sisters Report that the execution situation in Missouri is more than a local issue.

“The rest of the country should care about Missouri because anybody in this country that’s awake to human rights and knows that we shouldn’t be torturing and killing our citizens can’t help but be concerned that Missouri is killing so many people.”

That evening, Prejean gave another talk in Kansas City at the Unity Temple on the Plaza. She also told GSR that talking to people about the state of the death penalty in the United States is what God has called her to do.

“Prayer, for me, is listening to God,” she said, “listening to the Gospels to try to hear my own call of what it is God wants me to do. And one of the things that’s become clear to me is that I need to go share with the people — to just help wake up people about this issue. Because people’s hearts are good. They don’t really want to be doing this, but it’s not on their radar. So I want to put it on everybody’s radar and get people thinking about it, and then acting to change things.”

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie.]