Helen Prejean sways hearts with the power of stories

by Kristen Whitney Daniels

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On a sunny afternoon in March, a small crowd gathered in the tiny Pilgrim Chapel in Kansas City, eager to hear from St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, one of the most prominent voices in the nation to speak out against the death penalty. The event, sponsored by Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, consisted of an invite-only, tight-knit network of people united through their mission.

From the minute Prejean entered the chapel, her presence enchanted the crowd. They knew they could count on Prejean to give her firsthand experience with the underbelly of the corrections system punctuated by tales of convicted murderers, death row and executions.

But instead of telling the crowd her own story, she introduced two men who were sentenced to death row and lived to tell the tale.

Joseph Amrine and Reggie Griffin are among the 350 people and counting who have been exonerated because of DNA evidence. As the men, who have a combined 40 years of sitting on death row, spoke of their trials reconnecting with friends and family, searching for suitable jobs and navigating technology, the crowd was captivated.

In that moment, Prejean elevated Amrine's and Griffin's voices to provide a glimpse into a world unknown to most of the public. As the men spoke of their lives of being wrongly accused with a death sentence lingering over them, they became human.

And that, people will tell you, is where Prejean's power lies.

"I can't say enough times the effects of [her] storytelling," said Karen Clifton, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. Clifton cites Prejean's example as crucial to her organization, which collaborates with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Congregation of St. Joseph on death penalty and restorative justice issues.

Clifton's own involvement working to end the death penalty came directly from Prejean, who encouraged Clifton to visit death row and listen to the stories from families of the innocent and of the convicted. Eventually, the stories led Clifton to witness an execution.

"It's one of those things that once you've seen, you can't unsee, and so that's what really propelled me to get working in this and continue to work in it," Clifton said.

Shane Claiborne, another prominent activist against the death penalty, had similar things to say about Prejean.

"The thing that Sister Helen does ... so wonderfully is tell stories," Claiborne said. "The power of stories and her ability to do that and also maybe to defy categories, too — to have a wild, sassy Southern nun — I think also it invites people in."

Claiborne should know. He spent a portion of his life "passionately in favor" of the death penalty.

"I've always been passionate, even when I'm wrong," he joked.

Claiborne's change of heart came in part from Prejean's stories of murder victims' family members who were against the death penalty, which "challenged the narrative" that the death penalty was justice for the victim, a narrative he grew up with in the "Bible Belt."

Now, he often collaborates with Prejean at anti-death-penalty events.

"What I see with the death penalty is they don't get argued into thinking differently, they get storied into thinking differently," Claiborne said. "I think that Dead Man Walking [Prejean's first book] did that for a lot of people: It storied people into something that could just be stale rhetoric and old debates and hubris."

An activist's journey

Dead Man Walking started out as a window into a world not many knew. From there, it turned into an Academy Award-winning film, a stage play for educational institutions and an opera.

The book, published in 1993, chronicles Prejean's relationship with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier from their first correspondence to his eventual execution. While the book focuses on Sonnier, it also details Prejean's journey from a self-described "spiritual nun" — a sister who subscribes to the idea that "if people have God, they have everything," Prejean said — to high-profile activist.

Prejean said she never set out to be an activist, especially one advocating on behalf of death row inmates. Prejean, who turned 78 in April, was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1957, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, now a part of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Prejean spent her early years as a sister working in the suburbs as a middle school teacher, director of religious education at a New Orleans parish and a director of her order's novices.

At the time, Prejean was content being a "spiritual nun," as she had never wanted to minister to people who live in poverty.

"I had no desire to go there. I had compartmentalized faith that those who were called to serve the poor go serve the poor, but that wasn't my calling," she said.

It wasn't until she was at a conference in 1980 in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she heard a talk from Sr. Marie Augusta Neal, a professor of sociology, that she changed her mind. When Neal, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, began to talk about Jesus preaching good news to people who live in poverty, Prejean was sure she knew how Neal's teaching would end.

"I thought I knew what was coming next, how every hair on your head is numbered, how much God loves each of us," Prejean said.

Instead, Neal told the conference crowd that "it wasn't God's will for them to be poor, that they had a right to struggle for their rights that were theirs, that they would be poor no longer," Prejean recalled.

"There's a psalm that says that sometimes God answers us in thunder," Prejean said.

Following the conference, she moved into the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans and taught at an adult learning center.

One day in 1981, 24 years after she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph, a friend who worked at the Louisiana prison coalition office approached Prejean as she was leaving the adult learning center. The friend suggested she write a letter to a man on death row. She agreed.

"I wrote him ... then I visited him, and two and a half years later, I accompanied him to execution and told him to look at my face as Louisiana killed him in the electric chair," Prejean said.

That experience compelled her to write Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.

"I remember thinking clearly, really clearly, 'The people are never going to get close to this. It's a secret ritual. I've been brought in as a witness, so I've got to tell a story,' " she said.

Dead Man Walking spent 31 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list and has been translated into 10 different languages.

The book's success led to a 1995 film adaptation starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet, a composite character of death row inmates Prejean accompanied. The film captivated critics and audiences alike. Sarandon won the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Prejean.

Clifton and Claiborne agreed that Prejean's story told through the film was a catalyst for the movement. Clifton called it an "awakening for the country that we even had a death penalty."

Robert Dunham, executive director of the advocacy center Death Penalty Information Center, said Prejean's book helped propel the phrase "dead man walking" into the American pop culture vernacular.

"When you talk about the way the public views the death penalty, there are certain key events that you think about as bringing attention to the issue of capital punishment, and one of the key events is 'Dead Man Walking,' " Dunham said.

In 2000, five years after the movie's release, an operatic adaptation premiered at the San Francisco Opera and has since become one of the most frequently performed contemporary operas. The opera has had more than 50 productions since its inception.

Clips from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's production of "Dead Man Walking" (Courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City)

In February, opera fan and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg met with Prejean at the Washington, D.C., premiere of the opera. Prejean told The Guardian that they talked about Ginsburg's disdain for capital punishment and "the concentrated pockets" that utilize the sentence in the United States.

For Kate Aldrich, who played Prejean at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's production of "Dead Man Walking" in March, the experience was an "unexpected one."

She told GSR that when she initially accepted the role, she didn't know much about Prejean or her work. However, after diving deeper into Prejean's story, she found it "incredibly" moving.

The opera "opened doors that I did not expect in me in terms of spirituality, in terms of forgiveness, in terms of judgment and, above all, empathy. And I'm applying it to my life everywhere," Aldrich said. "It's reawakened a spirituality that I've always had but that has a new meaning to me now as a result of doing this opera and learning about Sister Helen's work."

Decrease in support for the death penalty

Public opinion surrounding the death penalty has changed in the 36 years of Prejean's prison ministry, which some attribute to Prejean's work.

According to a 1994 Gallup poll, a year after Prejean's Dead Man Walking was published, 80 percent of respondents were in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder — the highest approval rate of the death penalty since Gallup starting asking that question in 1937. In October 2016, 60 percent answered similarly.

"More Americans still think the death penalty is acceptable than think it's unacceptable, but what we see is as people hear and are influenced by the moral argument, they begin to view the factual arguments differently," Dunham said. "I think [Prejean has] been one of the important influences in the climate change that we've seen about American attitudes against the death penalty."

Although making smaller gains, Christians are starting to reflect the views of the country at large.

In a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, 15 percent of white evangelicals, 13 percent of white mainline Protestants and 27 percent of white Catholics were opposed to the death penalty. In 2015, 25 percent of white evangelicals, 25 percent of white mainline Protestants and 34 percent of Catholics opposed the death penalty.

"American evangelicals are speaking out more and more against the death penalty, and I think the example of what Sister Helen was able to accomplish within the Catholic Church has given them a blueprint of sorts and a sense of confidence that the same type of moral message can work in their faith community," Dunham said.

Part of Prejean's and other Catholic advocates' work has been educating what the church teaches on the subject and incorporating it into the wider pro-life platform.

Prior to Dead Man Walking, Dunham said the Catholic Church's advocacy against the death penalty was limited. "It was not perceived as an active force."

He would not agree with that assessment anymore.

Clifton's organization launched the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty on May 11 with the assistance and support of Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

"Sister Helen has been one of the driving forces behind converting the general Catholic principles of compassion and respect for life into an active policy position against capital punishment," Dunham said. "That would certainly not have happened so quickly and so decisively without her, I would say, unrelenting effort."

When Prejean first started speaking to Catholics about the issue in the early 1990s, she said she noticed a disconnect in pro-life circles — many were against abortion but in favor of the death penalty.

"I found out the difference, and the difference is that people who are pro-life are saying, 'If it's an innocent life,' " Prejean said.

To start incorporating the death penalty into pro-life ethics, Prejean said, she realized she would need to take her mission to the top. She wrote to Pope John Paul II asking him in a 1997 letter to help the church "stand for the dignity not only of innocent life, but guilty life."

Two years later, on Jan. 27, 1999, the pope made a statement at a papal Mass in St. Louis, calling for an end to the death penalty. Prejean calls it the first time the pope labeled the death penalty a pro-life issue.

That day, he affirmed the dignity of the innocent — and the accused. He told the crowd: "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. ... I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

'The issue has to have a name for us'

"At some point, people move from being an advocate to being a symbol, and I think that Sister Helen falls in that category," Dunham said.

Claiborne and Dunham list Prejean with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama as the most influential voices in the movement against the death penalty.

"I think there's a long, proud tradition among religious and moral leaders, and she is in the forefront of that tradition when it comes to the death penalty," Dunham said.

After 36 years of ministry, Prejean shows little signs of slowing down, only taking off time this summer to write her third book, River of Fire — a prequel to Dead Man Walking — which currently has no release date.

Clifton said Prejean's legacy will most likely come down to her ability to tell effective and powerful stories. Claiborne agreed.

"It can't be said enough that part of what Sister Helen has done, she has made an issue personal. ... The issue has a name for [Prejean], and the issue has to have a name for us because we're talking about real people and real lives that are at stake," Claiborne said. "She's modeled that so beautifully, hasn't she?"

Prejean's 36 years of ministry all began with a chance encounter with Sonnier, a man she said she was "nervous" and "scared" to meet.

"I looked into his eyes. There's grace; there's the encounter. I said, 'Oh my God, he's a human being,' " she said. "Everything he's done — and I didn't know the murders yet — he was worth more than whatever terrible act he has done in his life. He is worth more than that. There's more to him than that. Then my own journey began."

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is kdaniels@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @KWhitneyDaniels.]