I had the pleasure of speaking at commencement at the University of St Francis in Fort Wayne last week. I thought I’d share with you an article about my talk written by Becky Manley for The Journal Gazette.

Search inner self for life’s passion

‘Dead Man Walking’ author advocates Saint Francis grads focus lives on love

During quiet meditation, when distractions are pushed away, a person can look within to find the fire of a guiding passion, then use it to reach out to others and spread that fire exponentially.

That was the message delivered by Sister Helen Prejean, 70, of New Orleans, during the University of Saint Francis commencement address Saturday.

Prejean, a vocal death penalty opponent who penned “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” based on her experience with Louisiana death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, talked about finding the inner passion to about 490 graduating students.

Speaking at St Francis commencement - photo Clint Keller, The Journal GazettePrejean, who has accompanied six men to their executions, shared three stories – about Mahatma Ghandi, Susan Sarandon and herself – to illustrate how people can find their guiding passion, or inner fire.

After talking about Ghandi’s difficult start as a lawyer, Prejean explained how Susan Sarandon read “Dead Man Walking” and became so consumed with turning it into a movie she pestered her longtime companion, Tim Robbins, until he read the book.

Sarandon contacted Prejean and told her she thought the book should be made into a film, saying it would bring deeper discourse about the death penalty in the U.S.

Despite lacking the usual components of Hollywood storytelling such as romance, the movie became an award-winning hit. Prejean talked about the vastness of the worldwide Academy Awards audience who saw Sarandon receive her Oscar, saying that’s how something that starts from within can grow into a fire that spreads beyond you.

“It has legs and it walks and it goes past you but you’re part of it,” Prejean said.

Finally, Prejean talked about her own story and how she at first didn’t understand the connection between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the poor.

While the desperate plight of the inner-city poor gained much attention after about 100,000 people were stranded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Prejean said there’s more than one way to drown in the inner city – and that the other way is poverty.

Death row is peopled with the poor who can’t afford a good defense. Many in the U.S. are conflicted when it comes to the punishment for heinous crimes, thinking somebody ought to pay the ultimate penalty, Prejean said.

Those thoughts led to a surprising moment for Prejean the first time she met Sonnier, two years before she watched him executed in the electric chair.

“I was shocked at how human his face was,” Prejean said, adding that she thought whatever this man has done, he is more than his worst deed.

“The Gospel of Jesus is so countercultural to our culture,” Prejean said, saying we should forgive – which is different from condoning – the crime.

“Would Jesus pull the switch? Would he really pull the switch for you?” Prejean asked.

After talking about how her experiences with death row inmates has led to ongoing discussion about the death penalty, Prejean again urged graduates to meditate and find their passion so they can catch on fire, and that fire is named “love,” Prejean said.

“That is my prayer for you. That is my wish for you.”