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Both arms of the cross can reconcile everyone, Prejean tells Trinity Institute

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ   (Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street)

[Episcopal News Service]  Reconciliation begins when we venture into places of poverty and despair, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, told Trinity Institute on February 2, and we are given the grace to practice that reconciliation, not before we begin, but while we are on the path.

Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America," advocates for restorative, rather than retributive, justice. She serves as spiritual advisor both to convicted prisoners and to the families of their victims. She began working in prison ministry in New Orleans in 1981. Her 2005 follow-up book is "The Death of Innocents."

Early in her life, Prejean said, she believed the theology that she had been taught: that humanity's true home is in heaven and that while the poor suffer in this world, they will be comforted in heaven. Then she heard a nun say that Jesus' good news was, in fact, that the poor would be poor no longer.

That theology changed her view of her work in this world, Prejean said. She moved into a New Orleans housing project near her convent and listened to the residents.

"It was witnessing their suffering that transformed me," she said.

One day in 1982, someone asked her if she wanted to write to a man on death row. "Talk about the sneakiness of God. This is Part One," Prejean said.

So she wrote, and "you know the problem? He wrote back. He wrote back and it was an encounter over two people across huge lines of division."

Then she decided she ought to visit Patrick Sonnier, facing the death penalty for killing two teenagers. The "sneaky part of God, Part Two," is that Sonnier welcomed a visit and suggested that she could be his spiritual advisor.

She had no idea of how to do what he was suggesting she should do. "Grace unfolds under us, the way you bring the ship through locks. You don't get grace ahead of time; I didn't get the grace ahead of time," she said.

"But God gives us like this little penlight and the grace comes up under us as we need it. And that was where my path went. It was plunging right to that place."

The grace of reconciliation comes in the meeting. "So when I go visit the man," she said. "The shocking thing: I looked up and he had such a human face. What did I think, huh?"

Prejean said her experiences have taught her not to look at the cross in the same way. For her now, it is a symbol of execution. Yet, she said, we wear it as a "great ornament."

Eddie Sonnier, Partick's brother who was also convicted for the murders, bought Prejean the cross she wears by selling his plasma in Louisiana's Angola Prison to earn money to pay another prisoner to make it. "I wear a cross around my neck [purchased by] someone involved in a heinous terrible murder of two teenaged kids. The symbol of our redemption."

Prejean knew she had to face the families of the two teenagers, but she didn't approach them at first--"a terrible mistake," she said.

Finally she met them at a public pardon board meeting. The parents of Loretta Borque would not speak with her. Lloyd LeBlanc, father of the murdered David LeBlanc, and his wife Eula, did.

"I expect the same anger and rejection, but was surprised by grace and [the fact that] human beings never fit in a box," she said. LeBlanc simply asked her to come and see them. "He was the gracious one," she said.

Later she prayed with him and realized that she was kneeling next to a man who lived the Gospel of Jesus. "He'd been thrown into the fire of losing his son and the prayer he prayed was for everyone" in his family and for the Sonniers, she said.

LeBlanc told her about praying over his son David when he went to identify him at the morgue. He said that when he got to the part of the Lord's Prayer asking God to forgive his sins as he forgives others who sin against him, "I didn't feel the words but I know that Jesus called me to forgive and I am going to do what Jesus said. I know some people think forgiveness is weak."

But, he told Prejean, "they killed my son but I am not going to let them kill me."

"It was the love in him that transformed him," she said, as he prayed that he would not want to retaliate in kind, because "then he knew he would have lost himself."

"The true path of reconciliation is not acquiescence; it is not passive," she said. "It's spiritually active, and a call is received from people like Lloyd LeBlanc, in the midst of it, that he will continue to be a person of love. He set his face to walk down that path and the grace of God met him on that path. He is our teacher."

She said LeBlanc taught her that Jesus' arms outstretched on the cross embrace everyone, declaring that all are beloved. That embrace runs counter to the message of the wider culture, which makes us think that we cannot stand on the side of both victims and their killers. Instead, we tell people that we must use "redemptive violence" to make things right by honoring the victim and balancing God's love with God's justice, Prejean explained.

What Prejean called the "secret rituals" of death sentences carried out at midnight have given society an "impossible burden." The burden is that of believing in a process that says "we have the wisdom to know when life should be terminated because people are not redeemable, they are not human like us and we can terminate their lives. We can determine that, in fact, God is finished with them and that it is time for them to enter eternity and we have the wisdom to be able to get the truth and to be able to know that."

Prejean said she believes the gospel of Jesus requires her to do the work she does. "The reconciliation the Jesus calls us to is not to make peace with government-imposed death," she said.

[NOTE: To listen to Prejean's presentation in its entirety, visit Trinity Institute's website at: