The College’s eighth annual Community Learning Day featured guest speaker Sister Helen Prejean, author of the summer reading book “Dead Man Walking,” in Kendall Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Prejean spoke about her childhood, what led her to write her story and her feelings about the death penalty. This speech was later followed by a panel discussion titled “Religion and Public Policy.”
Prejean spoke about growing up in New Orleans and later moving into the St. Thomas housing projects, where she first realized there were two Americas. She worked at Hope House, which sought to educate young people who did not finish high school. Poor kids were “doomed into a spiral,” Prejean said, because there was no way to escape poverty.
“It is a human right to have healthcare and a decent education,” Prejean said. Prejean also spoke negatively about the prison system, which she claimed was a way of “throwing away poor people,” since 90 percent of prison inmates are poor.
She later grew up to have ill feelings toward the justice system. “Pat Sonnier dying in the electric chair galvanized and changed my life forever,” Prejean said, alluding to the character in “Dead Man Walking,” who was the impetus for her role as spiritual adviser to death row inmates.
A common self-critique of the author’s was that she did not initially visit victims’ families. Prejean responded by saying she thought they were mad and did not want to talk to her. “I don’t just take (the readers) on highs but also troughs,” Prejean said, which is why she included those passages in the book.
Much of the speech was reserved for her feelings on the death penalty, specifically highlighted in “Dead Man Walking.” “The death penalty is imbalanced because it depends on the victim’s race and status,” Prejean said. She said the death penalty is another example of the state using violence to exercise authority, which brings about empire.
She also spoke about the inequality present in the legal system. “(Authorities) don’t care about black-on-black crime even though that is 90 percent of the murders in New Orleans . 80 percent of the executions happen in the south, and most there are poor with weak defense,” Prejean said.
Prejean urged the New Jersey community to put an end to the state’s use of capital punishment.
“New Jersey is so close to stopping the death penalty,” Prejean said. “It is up to the citizens to give legislators the courage to stop it.”
“I really liked the end of (Prejean’s) speech because it made her experience more real. I wasn’t just reading words on a page, but rather I was listening to someone who had witnessed first-hand the result of our legal system,” Mara Herling, freshman elementary education and history major, said.
After the speech, a panel discussion on “Religion and Public Policy” took place featuring Khalid Blankinship, associate professor of religion and coordinator of the master’s program in religion at Temple University, Rev. Dan Bottorff, associate minister of the First United Methodist Church in Westfield, N.J., Michele Tarter, associate professor of English at the College, and Prejean. The panel discussed such issues as the state’s interference with religion, the culture of violence in society and rights for prisoners.
“We wanted to broaden the topic past the death penalty, and talk about the intersection of religion and the public arena,” Celia Chazelle, professor of history and moderator for the panel discussion, said. “I thought it was great that all the panelists spoke with each other as well as with the audience.”
In addition, Tarter was hoping to initiate a letter-writing program to prison inmates. “The prison is an odd machine. I don’t think what they do is moral or ethical,” Tarter said, adding that prison programs could help change the lives of the inmates.
The panel also explored the effectiveness of the First Amendment in separating church and state, as well as the issue of President George W. Bush invoking God in the name of war.
“The best issue was violence and religion. I think what I’ve begun to see is the connection between religion and war, but I’ve never really thought about it until Sister Helen spoke about it. Hearing her make that connection and have a nun be so politically active was inspiring,” Ashley Reichelmann, senior women’s and gender studies major, said. “I thought what was best about the panel was the diversity of religion on it. Their different areas of expertise made it very interesting.”