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McPherson College Religious Heritage Lecture Welcomes Author of ‘Dead Man Walking’

posted Aug 28, 2013 in CAMPUS EVENTS

While probably best known for being portrayed by actress Susan Sarandon in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean’s work and life goes far beyond that moment of fame.

She will present McPherson College’s 26th annual Religious Heritage Lecture at McPherson Church of the Brethren at 7 p.m. Sept. 15 with “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.”

A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille for nearly six decades, Sister Helen Prejean began her service teaching religion to junior high school students and became convinced that advocating for the poor was essential to the Gospel message. She moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, where she ministered at the Hope House from 1981 to 1984.

At the same time, she began a prison ministry when requested to correspond with an inmate at Angola - Patrick Sonnier, convicted of killing two teenagers and sentenced to death by electric chair. Her experiences as Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and witness to his death led her to write “Dead Man Walking,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and rose to number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for eight months.

Dr. Steve Gustafson, director of planned giving and organizer of the college’s annual lecture series, said he heard Sister Prejean previously when she spoke at MC in 2000.
“I anticipate a passionate presentation that will help the audience understand the mindset and journey of those accused of capital crimes, the feelings and response of the victim’s family, and the challenges associated with capital punishment,” Dr. Gustafson said.

The book was adapted into a major motion picture in 1996, in which Sarandon starred playing Sister Prejean alongside Sean Penn as a death row inmate based on Sonnier. The movie was nominated for four Oscars and Sarandon received Best Actress. The work has since also been adapted into an opera and a play geared to high schools and colleges.

Since then, she spent the next three decades advocating for victims’ rights, speaking against capital punishment, providing spiritual counseling to death row inmates and educating the public about related issues. She’s credited with helping to shape the Catholic Church’s modern opposition to capital punishment.

As she helped accompany six inmates as they faced their execution, she grew to suspect that some of them were not guilty. This led her to her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” published in 2004. Sister Helen is working on her third book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.” Her first two books will be available for sale at the lecture and Sister Prejean will hold a signing immediately following the lecture.

The religious heritage lectureship was established at McPherson College through the generosity of unnamed contributors. This endowed lecture series was founded to provide opportunity for presentation, analysis, and discussion of important issues within the Christian traditions represented by the faculty, staff, and students at McPherson College. It was the intention of the contributors that this endowment should annually bring speakers of note to the McPherson College campus to address contemporary issues from diverse Christian perspectives, with a particular emphasis on the Church of the Brethren. It was also intended that this series impact persons beyond the immediate McPherson College Community.

In June 1998, Dr. Waldo Newberg established the Nelson Memorial Chair of Christian Education. The chair was established to honor John Emil Nelson and Olive Octavia Nelson, in gratitude for their contributions to Dr. Newberg’s life. The gifts of the initial anonymous donors and the earnings from the Nelson Chair fund the lectureship.

The public is invited and encouraged to attend this free event.

Live webcast is available via Livestream.

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