Sister Helen Prejean Speaks on the Grace of Prison Ministry

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sister Helen Prejean, a nun in the Congregation of St. Joseph who gained national attention for her book Dead Man Walking, spoke to students and faculty at Duke Divinity School on the effects of the death penalty in America. The events were sponsored by the Certificate in Prison Studies.

Prejean draws extensively on her work with death row inmates in her efforts to ban execution. Her visit to Duke Dec. 1-4 came days after Pope Benedict XVI announced his support for those seeking ending the death penalty around the world.

About 100 students and community members attended a Dec. 1 screening of Dead Man Walking, the 1996 film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon which was adapted from her book. Prejean then answered questions from the audience for another hour.

Prejean spoke to students in Campbell's prison ministry class.On Dec. 2, Prejean spoke to students from a class on prison ministry taught by Douglas Campbell, associate professor of New Testament and director of prison studies. She told stories from inmates with whom she has ministered, using each person’s full name in order to recognize their humanity.

Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981 while living in New Orleans. She befriended Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers who was on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Through her friendship with Sonnier, she began to challenge the morality behind capital punishment.

She now devotes herself full time to ministering to those in prison and seeking to abolish the death penalty. When she witnesses an execution, she wants each prisoner to know that someone is there who does not want to see them dead. “Death row is full of experiences of grace,” she said. 

Third-year M.Div. student Ian Strickland said that Prejean challenged the death penalty, yet made clear that serious moral issues are involved. “You have to grapple with the tension of these people being children of God who have done horrible things,” he said. “If we forget this tension, we’re offering cheap grace.”

Prejean’s theology that all people have been created by God informs her activism and passion for prison ministry. “It is a privilege to be able to go to a prison,” she said, “and to spend time with the treasures of the gospel—the ones everyone else wants to throw away.”

While at Duke Prejean also participated in a vigil against the death penalty hosted at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham Dec. 2 and preached at Duke Chapel Dec. 4.