While many in the University community have spent the past three months pondering the LSA theme semester, “What Makes Life Worth Living?”, a speaker on campus last night has thought about this query for the last three decades.
Author and activist Helen Prejean talked to a crowd of approximately 150 Ann Arbor residents in Blau Auditorium about her involvement in a campaign to outlaw the death penalty — a goal Prejean said makes her life worth living.
Prejean was invited to speak on campus by Commonweal Magazine, the University Law School and the University’s Women’s Studies department as part of the LSA theme semester. A nun from New Orleans, Prejean has worked with prisoners on death row for three decades.
Prejean described an “awakening” to the issues of social injustice, saying a revealing experience on a church retreat transformed her from a sheltered nun who believed that “poor people only need God” to an active volunteer, aware of the importance of participating in service to meet community needs.
“Witnessing the suffering that comes from injustice changed me and it made me,” she said. “It changed the way I read the newspaper, it changed the books I read, and a desire welled up in my heart of what I want to with my life.”
After a volunteering session at an adult education center, someone asked Prejean to be a pen pal to a prisoner on death row. She became the inmate’s spiritual advisor, and has since dedicated her life to abolishing the death penalty in the United States.
“Human rights aren’t given to people for good behavior and they can’t be taken away from people for bad behavior,” she said.
Prejean explained that it was at this point, after being exposed to injustice and learning to stand for something, that she discovered what made her life worth living.
“What makes life worth living is flowering into, discovering, being seized by a passion bigger than us,” she said. “It’s a great grace when it comes to us.”
According to Prejean, protecting people’s rights is an innate human desire and a responsibility that we have as humans.
“We are people of justice, and we are the ones who have been entrusted with the Constitution of the United States, and we are the ones who have to make it work in our daily lives and in our dealings with each other and when something is wrong, we have to be the ones to change it,” she said.
After her speech, Prejean took questions from the audience and addressed regional differences in attitudes toward the death penalty. She explained that while New Jersey and New Mexico have recently banned the use of the death penalty, it is still “holding strong” in the South, but that the “practice is diminishing” to a certain degree. For example, many southern states now require that juries be informed about alternative sentences like life in prison without parole.
Prejean commended Michigan on historically being opposed to the death penalty.
“Thank you, Michigan, we hold you up like a beacon,” she said as the audience broke out into applause. “You’ve never succumbed to the pressure of the death penalty and that’s something to be proud of.”