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Sister Helen Prejean Brings Death Penalty Opposition to Yale Divinity School

By Jeff Wells '05

“The question of fire and the question of faith is: ‘How can we turn over our lives before we die and to what will we give our life?  What is worth our life?'”

So began the homily delivered in Yale Divinity School 's Marquand Chapel on Tuesday, April 5 by Sister Helen Prejean, famously portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film Dead Man Walking, which was based on Prejean's first book.  During her stay in New Haven, Prejean was hosted by Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge and his wife, Janis, executive director of the St. Thomas More Chapel and Catholic Center at Yale.

The renowned author and opponent of the death penalty described her own journey into social justice consciousness through her work in a predominantly African-American housing project in New Orleans. She was initially drawn into activism against the death penalty by what she termed “the sneakiness of God,” back in 1982.

“I got an invitation to write to somebody on death row,” she recalled. “I thought I was just going to write letters!” Then she met Pat Sonier, the convicted prisoner whose execution is recounted in Dead Man Walking. Sonier told her not to come to his execution.  She recited her response to him: “Pat, there's no way you are going to die alone without a loving face to see.  Look at me.  Look at me and I will be the face of Christ for you.”

“Are you all studying in divinity school the sneakiness of God?” she asked. “There ought to be a whole course on the sneakiness of God!  You get drawn into these things and you're going down the path and you don't know what's going to happen to you along the way.”

Out of that initial experience in New Orleans, Prejean explained, “the mission was born – I had to tell the story.” In summary, her message to the Marquand audience was this: “Christ doesn't want us doing this (state-sanctioned executions)... Christ lays down his life... The sign of Jesus is that we lay down our lives -- we give over our lives, not that we take the lives of others.”  

After more than two decades of fighting against capital punishment, Prejean is still going strong. Just last year her most recent book on the subject was published, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Random House).

In addition to speaking at Marquand Chapel, Prejean also appeared at St. Thomas More (click here to view photos) and at a lunch sponsored by the Yale Law School Human Rights Group.