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Prejeans Passion

Famed author challenges the legal system in Marylhurst appearance
by: Cliff Newell, Sister Helen Prejean, left, probably America’s foremost crusader against the death penalty and author of “Dead Man Walking,” appeared at Marylhurst University Sunday.

'I was the most oblivious of the oblivious of the oblivious,' said Sister Helen Prejean at Marylhurst University Sunday.

Not anymore. The nun from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille of New Orleans, La., is probably the foremost crusader against the death penalty in America, and her presentation as the keynote speaker for Marylhurst's Alumni Weekend showed why.

With her trademark warm Southern drawl and sharp sense of humor, Prejean displayed the passion - sometimes tears, even rage - that has made the author of 'Dead Man Walking' such an unique personality and divisive figure. She is a heroine to many, but also an 'enemy' to proponents of the death penalty.

'This takes a special realization and awakening,' Prejean said. 'I'm an example of how God can use anybody. It was 20 years before I understood the connection between social justice and following Jesus.'

Prejean described her own personal 'Road to Damascus' moment. It happened at a seminar given by Maria Augusta O'Neill, a nun famed for her work in social justice.

'I was not excited about it,' Prejean said. 'I was hoping I would come through unscathed. There was a lot of resistance to me, to this social justice stuff.'

The first day she did, since O'Neill's presentation featured mostly statistics. The second day was different. In presenting Christ's teaching about poverty, O'Neill used the phrase, 'They would be poor no longer.'

'Kaboom!' Prejean said. 'Of course. That is what Jesus taught. He was not some dreamy preacher on a hill. He upset people badly, and that's why they hated him and wanted his life. His community is so radical.

'Something in me woke up. I could no longer be neutral.'

It wasn't long after this turning point that Prejean, in a totally chance encounter on a street, met a man who asked her if she would mind writing a letter to a man on death row.

Prejean joked, 'The sneakiness of God is a subject that really needs to be studied.'

Prejean's letter to convict Patrick Sonnier started the chain of events that led to Prejean's No. 1 best-selling book and an Academy Award-winning movie with Susan Sarandon and a career as a crusader that is still going strong. Even in an atmosphere in which support for the death penalty appears to be undiminished, even after the success of 'Dead Man Walking,' Prejean did not have a happy story to tell her Marylhurst audience.

While Prejean has taken on the cause of truly guilty people on death row, her new book 'The Death of Innocents' concentrates on people who are probably innocent yet have been caught in the gears of a legal system better at providing vengeance than justice; particularly against the poor and racial minorities.

'Legalisms don't make things morally right,' Prejean said. 'We have to question the law. The way things are now it is inevitable that innocent people are being killed. This is against everything I know about God through Jesus.'

While primarily known as a crusader against the death penalty, Prejean's mission is much wider. Her primary target is poverty, and the catastrophe of suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina in her native Louisiana provided tremendous fuel for her passion for social justice.

'Jesus was always gravitating toward the least of people,' Prejean said. 'Jesus would have been in the Super Dome. We had no plan for disaster because we had no plan for them living.'

Prejean does not back down. She has confronted the likes of Pope John Paul II and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Yet she conducts her crusade with humility, admitting her own 'cowardice' in reaching out to the families of murder victims.

She also points out a key fact.

'I haven't been in the fire. I've never lost a loved one to murder. I'm not sure how I would react if that happened.'

There is no sign of her slowing down. Prejean makes some 120 appearances a year and has been in heavy demand ever since the movie of 'Dead Man Walking' came out in 1996. She remembers when it all started.

'I had been invited by a tiny anti-death penalty group to talk in Memphis,' Prejean said. 'We thought we were going to huddle down at the front of the auditorium, then go out in the lobby for cookies and punch.'

Instead, the auditorium was filled up by a huge crowd that had to be directed by police. Prejean found that she was a figure on the world stage.

Ultimately, despite the grim present reality, Prejean is hopeful that the death penalty will be abolished in America.

'My real hope is the people,' she said. 'I don't think Americans are any more vengeful than people in countries that have done away with it.

'That's what gives me hope. The desire for vengeance is not deeply embedded in most people's hearts.'