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“The mandate to practice social justice is unsettling because taking on the struggles of the poor invariably means challenging the wealthy and those who serve their interests,” observes Sister Helen Prejean, who visits Eastern Iowa this week. Born in 1939 in the segregated South, she recounts that as a child her direct experience with poverty was limited, and her faith life focused on her personal relationship Sister Helen Prejean IC Posterwith God. The social and economic problems of others remained distant even after she entered religious life. This changed drastically when, in the early 1980s, Sister Helen moved into a housing project in New Orleans to engage in ministry to the poor in response to the Catholic Church’s renewed emphasis on justice. There, she says, she began to become deeply aware of the struggles of others.

This consciousness, and her corresponding spiritual awakening, led the nun to become pen pals with a Louisiana death row inmate in 1982. Serving as his spiritual adviser and accompanying him to his ultimate execution, she attempted to reconcile the humanity of the condemned man with the horror of his acts and the pain inflicted on the victims’ families. Sister Helen wrote about her experience in the best-selling memoir Dead Man Walking, prompting her to become one of the world’s most prominent advocates for abolition of the death penalty. Her story was shared widely in the film by the same name in which Susan Sarandon played Prejean and Sean Penn played the convicted killer.

Although last year marked the 15th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Iowa and the trend toward abolition continues nationally, Sister Helen reminds us that this journey is not complete. Just last year, a bill to reinstate capital punishment in Iowa was introduced, and the United States overall remains an outlier in its use of the death penalty, counting itself among the ranks of China, Iran and North Korea.

More broadly, Sister Helen reminds us of the need to work for justice as our society struggles to come to terms with racial, social, and economic inequality. She challenges us to recommit ourselves to this cause. This work is vital; it is also personal. It requires recognition of the dignity of every human, a degree of humility, and courage.

At a time when our national discourse is too often filled with words of hate, violence, and marginalization of others because of their identity, position, or protest, Sister Helen’s message of welcome, grace, and love, could not be more timely.

The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and Coe College are delighted to welcome Sister Helen to Eastern Iowa as part of UI’s Just Living Theme Semester. We hope that her message resonates throughout our communities, inspires us to contemplate our shared humanity, and guides us toward reconciliation.

  • What: Sister Helen Prejean lecture, Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues
  • Thursday: 7 p.m. at Coe College, Cherry Auditorium, Peterson Hall, Cedar Rapids
  • Friday: 6:30 p.m. at University of Iowa, W10 Pappajohn Busisness Building, Iowa City
  • Events are free and open to the public. More information: (319) 335-0684.
  • Rev. Kristin Hutson is the Chaplain at Coe College. Brian Farrell is a Lecturer in Law and Associate Director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa.