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Being the leaven: Death penalty foe tells students they can make a difference

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Sister Helen Prejean got a rare standing ovation from the convocation audience at Bethel College on Sept. 21.

Maybe that was because she spoke directly and personally to them. The long-time anti-death penalty advocate perhaps best known for her book Dead Man Walking said to her listeners, mostly students, packed into Krehbiel Auditorium, “Young people, do you know how strong your voice is? Do you know your power?

“I’ve met a lot of politicians over the years,” she went on, “and almost all of them want young people to like them. If you think a small group of college students can’t make a difference, you don’t understand Jesus’ [parable] about the leaven [in Matthew 13].”

She offered a concrete illustration of the difference students can make – organizations such as the Innocence Project, through which student researchers have discovered evidence that has exonerated people wrongly convicted of crimes, including a number on death row.

The Peace Committee at Eden Mennonite Church, Moundridge, brought Prejean to south central Kansas as the special speaker for the church’s Sept. 20 service. Prejean included Bethel College in her itinerary because she rarely misses an opportunity to speak about her cause and because she wanted to encourage the Bethel community to become involved in the Kansas Coalition against the Death Penalty.

Before she gave her convocation presentation, Prejean sat down with Assistant Professor of Bible and Religion Brett Dewey’s Nonviolence Theory and Practice class. Another visitor to the class, one Prejean was eager to meet, was Kansas State Representative Carolyn McGinn, whose district includes Harvey County.

The death penalty has become a live issue again in Kansas thanks to McGinn, who introduced a bill in the last legislative session to outlaw the state’s death penalty on account of its steep cost in a time of deep budget cuts and deficits.

Kansas was one of the last states to reinstate the death penalty, in 1994. There are 11 people currently on Kansas’ death row. No one has been executed in Kansas since 1965. According to McGinn’s data, the estimated median cost of a death penalty case is about 70 percent higher than a non-death penalty case.

“People say, ‘This is a moral issue – it shouldn’t be about money,’” Prejean told the class. “But money is a moral issue. What kind of difference would [the money spent on one death penalty case] make with at-risk kids and drug addicts, with improving education?” – things that could help prevent violent crimes from happening in the first place – she asked.

Dead Man Walking, published in 1993, describes Prejean's experience walking with two Louisiana men through their executions (she has since accompanied four more) as well as her growing understanding of how victims’ families suffer long after the loss of their loved ones. In 1995, Dead Man Walking became a major motion picture directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The movie spawned the Dean Man Walking School Theatre Project, through which Bethel College was able to perform the play in 2006. Prejean’s second book, The Death of Innocents (2005), chronicles the execution of two men Prejean believes were wrongly convicted of violent crimes.

In addition to the high cost of pursuing death penalty cases and the number of wrong convictions, Prejean cited two other main reasons for her opposition to the death penalty – lack of trust in the federal government to be able to decide “who lives and who dies,” and the selectivity of the death penalty system.

The death penalty is never presented as a punishment option in cases involving blacks killing blacks or Hispanics killing Hispanics, she said. The people currently on death row are, by a wide margin, disproportionately poor, powerless and non-white.

In addition to her crusade against the death penalty, a major ministry for Prejean, a vowed member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, is counseling with the families of murder victims. She founded a victims’ advocacy group in New Orleans, Survive, for which she called on the knowledge and experience of Mennonite volunteers. The Mennonites, she told her Bethel audiences, have pioneered in restorative justice – counter to an American culture “largely built on violence and ‘kill the enemy,’” she said.

“Here at Bethel College, you are standing in a great [Mennonite] tradition,” she told the convocation audience. “But you have to learn it. You have to deal with the fear and anger in your own heart [and come to the realization that] the way to peace is not to make more violence.

“You have to make that your own,” she said. “That’s what adulthood is about.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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