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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 23, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Relic of Mexican martyr coming to East Bay in June
Holy Spirit heading for 125th birthday
Prejean adds voice
against Oakland violence

When Sister Helen Prejean told a gathering of more than 150 people at St. Columba Church that, sometimes, justice is “Just Us,” applause and “Amen” rang through the sanctuary.

Sister Helen Prejean

That “Just Us” didn’t sound so lonely at the May 14 event, sponsored by the Oakland parish and Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), billed as “Affirming Life.”

Sister Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, wrote “Dead Man Walking,” the book that became a movie, an opera and a play. The anti-death penalty work for which she is so well-known grew out of a move she described as from being a suburban teaching sister to one working — and living — in the housing projects of New Orleans. There, she found, everyone had someone in prison — or the cemetery.

Faith-based Oakland Community Organizations works to prevent violence in Oakland. It is responsible for the Measure Y initiative, a city violence-prevention program, and took part in bringing the CeaseFire violence-reduction program to the city. Several OCO speakers preceded Sister Prejean’s talk at the church, in front of which wooden crosses are placed for each homicide victim in Oakland.

Earlier in the day, Sister Prejean spoke at the commencement at Holy Names University, where she has been a longtime participant in the Sophia graduate program.

She recounted her story of “waking up” to the gathering at St. Columba, saying that when her order decided to work directly with the poor, the self-described suburban nun needed some convincing. One of her sisters helped her begin her journey.

“She said Jesus preached Good News to the poor. I thought I knew what she was going to say next,” said Sister Prejean. “And she said, integral to that Good News, to poor people, was that they would be poor no longer.”

This set her off on a spiritual journey. “Jesus is on the side of the people who hurt the most,” she said. “The people who have no voice. The people who are oppressed. Oppression is not God’s will. You resist injustice. You know what poverty does? Poverty cuts out our choices. Dignity is always about having choices.”

What came next was life-changing. “I packed up all my little nun stuff and moved into the housing project to be taught by African-American people.”

It was in the projects that she was first asked to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, the Death Row inmate who would be the first she would accompany on his final journey — and whose death in the electric chair would set her on the path to her life’s work.

More violence, in the form of the death penalty, is not the way to stop violence, Sister Prejean said.

And her work with families of victims has shown her, she said, that the death penalty does not offer them consolation. “Their stories break our hearts wide open,” she said. She recalled one father’s loss: “It was not going to honor his little child, who used to say, ‘Daddy, don’t step on that bug.’ His precious child respected life.”

Another father — whose friends told him that his opposition to the death penalty for his son’s killer might make people think he didn’t love his son — told Sister Prejean: “He killed our boy. I’m not going to let him kill me.”

She cited statistics that show the death penalty is applied more often to impoverished people of color. And she said that stopping the death penalty is within reach.

“Our name’s on that gurney, each of us,” she said. “We’re a democracy. If we’re not resisting, we’re there.”

On May 15, within hours of the community event, a man walking home from a store became Oakland’s 39th homicide victim of 2011.

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