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Dead Man Walking book about the death penalty.

Read To Grow: Dead Man Walking

BOOK: Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States by Helen Prejean

RECOMMENDED BY: Andrea (Comms Manager @KM & KM Facilitator)

I am beginning to notice something about Pat Sonnier. In each of his letters he expresses gratitude and appreciation for my care. He makes no demands. He doesn’t ask for money. He does not request my phone number (inmates at Angola are allowed to make collect phone calls). He only says how glad he is to have someone to communicate with because he is so lonely. The sheer weight of his loneliness, his abandonment, draws me. I abhor the evil he has done. But I sense something, some sheer and essential humanness, and that, perhaps, is what draws me most of all. – Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking is about the death penalty. It’s about social justice and injustice. It’s about corruption, poverty and families. It’s about people – broken people; people who kill, people who try to help and those who are indifferent. It’s the story of a woman whose heart for the least, the lost and the last compelled her into a place of violence and it is through the severity of her discomfort and God’s abounding grace that lives are transformed.

When Sister Helen Prejean’s religious community made a commitment to “stand on the side of the poor” she assented, but reluctantly. She resisted the recasting of the faith of her childhood, where what counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life is done. She did not want to struggle with politics and economics; she was a nun, not a social worker! Besides, it was all so complex and confusing – the mess the world is in– with one social problem meshed with others. But after reading people like Ghandi, Alice Walker, Albert Camus, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Sister Helen’s prayers start to change…from asking God to right the wrongs and comfort the suffering to knowing, really knowing, that God has entrusted those tasks to us.

It’s for this reason that Sister Helen, from her home at St Thomas in New Orleans (a housing project where “death is rampant” – from guns, disease and addiction), becomes the spiritual adviser of death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier, convicted killer of two teenagers and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Helen Prejean’s account of watching both Sonnier and Robert Willie (another convicted killer on death row) out to death and the conversations leading up to the killers’ final moments are devastating and truthful. The way she reaches out to the families of the victims as well as the officials whose job it was to mete out a death sentence on both men – Sister Helen loves people, without ego and without judgment. She looks past the brokenness and into the beauty of the life given us by God. And so her heart breaks for what breaks His.

This journey of love and redemption is as relevant today as it was when the book was first published in 1993 and the Oscar-winning movie came out in 1996. Here’s why Andrea puts this on her list of ‘must reads’ for anyone figuring out their place in the church’s response to poverty and vulnerability – social injustice:

The most beautiful, inspiring thing about Sister Helen’s story is her realisation that, actually, she could have been any one of the least, the last and the lost she has dedicated her life to supporting. She remembers the gifts of her own upbringing, which she once took for granted: how she could choose any book, read it and comprehend it, how she could write a complete sentence and punctuate it correctly, and if she needed help she’d be able to call on judges, attorneys, ministers  and educators. And then she wonders what she would have been like if she had grown up without such protection and support. What cracks would have turned up in her character? What’s to say that she wouldn’t have been pregnant at 17? How law-abiding would she have been? How law-abiding would I have been?

But Sister Helen doesn’t limit herself to her imagination or allow discomfort to disrupt the call on her life to step in and do what she can to make a difference. She takes action! If I was prepared to be inconvenienced even an iota of what Sister Helen Prejean was, well…

Dead Man Walking is a call to action; it’s a war against apathy and a plea to participate. It’s brutal, challenging, enlightening and impossible to ignore.

To get your own copy of Dead Man Walking, visit – it’s available in Hardcover, Paperback and Audiobook.

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