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Sister Helen Prejean delivers keynote address

Julian Ingabire (left) and Elizabeth Scharpf, co-winners of the 2013 Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize. Photo by Aaron Juarez
Sister Helen Prejean meets an audience member. Photo by Aaron Juarez.


The keynote speaker for the Grinnell Prize Symposium was noted activist and writer Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean, a Catholic nun, has been actively involved in advocating for prisoners’ rights and against capital punishment. Prejean  was brought to campus by the Prize Office and the Rosenfield Program Committee. She addressed members of the campus community in Herrick Chapel on Tuesday, November 4th. The S&B’s Mariam Asaad sat down for an exclusive interview with Prejean.

So you’re doing some really incredible work advocating for prisoners rights and against capital punishment. What got you started initially and what kept you going, given that there’s so much that can bog you down?

What got me started was the waking up of spiritual enlightenment about Jesus and Christianity. I had always experienced Christianity as to be charitable to people and to be prayerful, but not to do justice. I thought justice was something [that] other people did … I didn’t see God as connected to justice.

So, the awakening to the Gospel of Jesus was that Jesus was very involved with justice and resisted the oppression, in his day, of both the Romans and Herod, who had built these palatial buildings with slaves and taxing the people … When I awakened to it, I realized how distant I had been—and its what we call white privilege in this country.

I’d grown up, my father a successful lawyer, with African-American servants that worked at our house … I never questioned the segregation. See culture blinds us, it says ‘that’s just the way we do things here, and these people desire to be separate from the white people.’ … So I [woke] up and I’d been living out in the suburbs of New Orleans … all-white, so I moved into the inner-city and lived among African-American people, as my neighbors and peers for the first time. They became my teachers of the underside of American life. It was almost like another country…. Doing just social analysis … is what changed me.

While I was there I got an invitation to write [to] a man on death row. So I wrote him a letter, he wrote back and two and a half years later I’m there with him when he’s executed. I witnessed his being executed by the state … it changed everything for me. I couldn’t be neutral about it and so I knew that I was called and it’s something I had to do.


Tell me about your book, Dead Man Walking and the subsequent film.

I wrote a book and then the book [was made into a film by] Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. … We worked on every line and every scene in that film, so that we could bring the American people to see a much deeper journey. … Susan Sarandon …  recognized that the book had the power to do a film that could really bring people deeper into this issue in a way we hadn’t done before.

You mentioned how religion was a motivating force. How do you reconcile your work with the fact that it may sometimes feel counterintuitive to Biblical injunctions—for example, the punishment for murder is capital punishment, as in a lot of major religions… 

It’s a really big thing to bring people who are Biblically illiterate into the issue. Because people tend to select … and so you gotta show that in the Hebrew Testament there were 37 different crimes for which you could get the death penalty. Why select murder? Why not adultery? Why not keeping the Sabbath?

[It’s because] people don’t know the Bible really. … People didn’t have prisons, remember, and they had to protect society. … And you [see] definitely in Jesus—I mean he even forgave his executioners and said that you can’t overcome hate with hate.

What do you think about the things that this year’s Prize Winners are doing?

I know this: they are individuals who saw a need and began to act and that is what really does change the world. So, I’m all in favor of and happy to support something like the Prize and these individuals. The individuals that we hold up … when [they] do this work and they know how big the need is … it’s like you’re having a light shone through you to the need behind you and that’ll be true for the [winners] … They’re going to be like prisms of light, pointing towards the need they have seen … hopefully it encourages other people, too, to stand up for the same thing.

What do you think about the Grinnell in Prison program?

I love that. I absolutely love that. Because you know Congress, in this harshness against crime and prisoners, started cutting all the Pell grants [in prisons] and nobody could go to college. It’s been awful. We definitely know that the more people are educated in prison, the lesser the recidivism rate is. We know that. So, I love seeing this happen with Grinnell. … I’m glad to know it exists. It helps give me hope.

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