“The awakening is always grace.”
These were the words Sister Helen Prejean used Thursday night at the Varsity Theatre to describe her journey working with the poor in New Orleans and ministering to death row inmates.
Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” received an honorary theological studies doctorate from Marquette as the opening ceremony for the weekend’s Peace and Justice Studies Association’s national conference hosted by Marquette’s Center for Peacemaking.
University Provost John Pauly said Marquette typically gives honorary degrees to recognize exceptional personal accomplishments.
“It’s especially meaningful and lovely when we can give out an award to someone who has been so inspirational,” Pauly said.
During her speech, Prejean encouraged Marquette students to awaken their communities to peace and justice through the use of the tools and opportunities provided by the university.
“Be passionate with your life,” she said. “Give your life for something soul-sized to make a difference in the world and to love one human being with dignity.”
Prejean said when she began living with the poor in the St. Thomas Development housing project in New Orleans, she had never before related to black people as peers. She said they became her teachers and awakened her to the Gospel of Christ.
To do away with poverty, a person doesn’t need to have a blueprint in their back pocket, she said.
“Just become neighbors to the people and learn from them,” Prejean said. “And then stand with them when the issues of injustice arise.”
In 1981 she began corresponding with Louisiana death row inmate Patrick Sonnier and ministered to him until his execution two years later. When they met, Prejean said it was a profound experience to look into his eyes.
“I guessed that somehow his face was going to look different because he murdered somebody,” Prejean said. “When the guards brought him in, I was shocked at how human his face was.”
Prejean said her job was to visit Sonnier and to let him know that he has dignity as a person.
“Whatever he has done, he is worth more than the worst act of his life, as are we all worth more than the worst act of our lives,” Prejean said.
Calling forgiveness a path rather than a destination, Prejean told the story of Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of Sonnier’s murder victim David LeBlanc.
Although he faced pressure to support the death penalty for his son’s murderer, LeBlanc acted with grace toward Sonnier’s family. After Sonnier’s conviction, Prejean said his family received threats and was taunted by the community.
LeBlanc, however, offered himself to Sonnier’s mother, coming to her front door with a basket of fruit and telling her she was not to blame for her son’s actions.
“He’s the one in the town who crossed the great chasm and was the peacemaker and reconciler,” Prejean said. “And he did it as much to preserve the love within himself as he did for her.”
Citing Lloyd’s example, Prejean said reconciliation must occur between families and criminals. This reconciliation means we must have outrage over the crime, but also know that nothing will be healed if we imitate violence.
“What can heal a human heart when you’ve suffered such a loss?” Prejean said.
To work for justice and peace, Prejean said people must change the dialogue in society. She said soldiers who fight in Iraq become witnesses and can return to tell the stories about the humanity of the Iraqis.
“We tell the stories. We wake people up,” she said.
“The best thing we can do with our lives is to change human consciousness, to awaken compassion where there was a desire for vengeance, to awaken the innate desire in people to love everyone where there’s mistrust and hate.”