Sister Helen Prejean looks at the cross of Jesus and not only sees the savior, but the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes.
“OK it’s Lent. And there are two arms on the cross. And the Gospel of Jesus stretches us over to both sides,” Sister Helen told a Little Rock crowd April 4. “… So on one arm of the cross of suffering we have victims, innocent victims that are killed in brutal ways. On the other arm of the cross is the perpetrator, the ones who did the crime.”
She later added, “And where would Jesus be in all this? You know he is going to have his arms around both.”
Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch advocate against the death penalty, as well as a religious sister with the Congregation of St. Joseph for 62 years, spoke at St. Mark Episcopal Church. She founded Ministry Against the Death Penalty and Survive, a support group for murder victim’s families.
She is best known for her 1993 book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” in which she details her work as a spiritual advisor which began in 1982 with convicted murderers Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. Sister Helen witnessed both executions by electric chair in 1984.
Susan Sarandon played Sister Helen in the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” winning an Oscar for her portrayal. Sister Helen’s third book “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” will be officially released in August.
Sister Helen captivated the crowd with her experience and historical knowledge of the death penalty. She has accompanied six men to the death chamber.
“I’m going to watch him be killed in front of my eyes. And I’m going to say to him — because see grace comes up inside us when we need it, not ahead of time — I said to him, ‘look at my face when they do this and I’ll be the face of Christ for you,’” she said of watching Sonnier’s execution. “… First thing I did was vomit, I just threw up. I never watched a human being killed in an intentional way after being rendered completely defenseless.”
In August 2018, Pope Francis announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would now declare the death penalty inadmissible with no exceptions. She has spoken with both former Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, telling Arkansas Catholic that while St. John Paul II set the ball for moving toward no exceptions for the death penalty in the Catechism, “Pope Francis tipped it over” the net.
Sister Helen spoke of her relationship with the LeBlanc family, particularly Lloyd LeBlanc, whose only son David, a teenager, was murdered by Sonnier and his brother Eddie, and his journey toward forgiveness.
“‘They killed our boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me. I’m going to do what Jesus said,’” she said LeBlanc, a Catholic, told her. She learned “to not let the love that’s within us be overcome by hatred.”
While millions are spent for the death penalty, she said “nothing is set up to heal victims’ families.”
“I’m sorry you have to wait so long, but we’ll summon you when it’s time and you get to sit on the front row and you get to watch as the state of Arkansas executes the one who killed your loved one and that is going to bring you peace. That is going to bring you closure. That is going to honor your loved one. Can it?” she said. “Can the violence be redemptive for human life? What do victims’ families need?”
Sister Helen said aside from falsely promising victims’ families healing, the death penalty is “racist, overwhelmingly it’s when white people are killed” and most on the row are poor, unable to afford a decent defense.
“If you want a quick litmus test of God, what kind of God you believe in, talk to people about the death penalty. Is this the God we believe in?” she said, adding, “what did Jesus mean ‘Father forgive them they know not what they’re doing’; what did Jesus mean, ‘pray for your persecutors’?”
She encouraged everyone to join the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which signed up members following the discussion.
“Take action. St. Basil way back in the fourth century said, ‘Annunciations are frequent, but incarnations are rare.’ We have to translate our faith into acts, into deeds to help our society change.”
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