By Dianne Abshire
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes; some come willingly, some by accident, and some with great reluctance. But, one thing that ties all heroes together is their sense of duty and responsibility to a greater cause. They have found the courage and conviction to stand for what they believe is right. They have given their lives to something bigger than themselves. —- years ago, Bill Pelke found it in his heart to forgive a teenage girl for the murder of his 85 year old grandmother. Not only did he forgive this girl for what she’d done, but he took it upon himself to work diligently to save this girl from the death chamber, and he succeeded, having her sentence commuted from a death sentence to 60 years. Bill promised that if he were successful in saving young Paula Cooper’s life, he would take every opportunity given him to speak out against capital punishment, and he has kept his promise. He now travels across the country speaking out against the death penalty whenever possible, attending rallies, marches, and participating in other various speaking engagements. Bill is a hero. His compassion and forgiveness has given him the courage to stand up and speak out against what he believes is a huge injustice. His courage allows him to relive his beloved grandmother’s murder over and over again as he tells the story of his grief and his loss. His desire to educate his audience against the evils of capital punishment gives him the strength to tell his story and express to them the peace and closure given by forgiveness. It is now his mission. Over 20 years ago, a young nun became a pen pal to a death row inmate in Angola, Louisiana. Sister Helen Prejean eventually became the “spiritual advisor” to a man who she would eventually watch be executed. The experience disturbed her so deeply that she stopped the car as she was driven away after the execution and she vomited. The experience changed her life. Sister Helen never expected to become a leading figure in the fight to end the death penalty, but she now believes that her ministry is part of a divine plan.
In a recent Ohio newspaper interview she said, “I’m a person that is trying to live out of faith. I really see God’s power behind this. I was a spiritual adviser to a man on death row in Louisiana in the early ’80s when everybody and their cat believed in executions, and then I watched this man, Patrick Sonnier, be put to death in the electric chair, and after him I accompanied four others, and I wrote the book.” A second book is now being written by Sister Helen, and it’s due out next summer. Tentatively titled “Machinery and Death,” it focuses on the execution of two other men who she watched die, and who she feels died innocent. When Sister Helen speaks, she pulls no punches. She speaks with knowledge and conviction, talking about the disproportionate number of minorities sentenced to death, and she puts the blame squarely on ineffective counsel and ambitious prosecutors. The death penalty “corrupts everybody it touches,” she teaches. It corrupts the politicians who win votes by using capital punishment as evidence that they’re “tough on crime.” It makes false promises of closure to the victim’s families who wait years for an execution only to find that this second death only leaves them empty and unfulfilled. She speaks the truth that we all know—-that ambitious prosecutors can win convictions by withholding evidence and distorting the facts, and then turn a blind eye when someone innocent is convicted and subsequently executed. She tells her stories without flinching. Her fascinating tales of the human condition are interwoven with stark realities and peppered with death penalty statistics—she educates on the sly.
“You have to show people, you have to tell them stories, you have to put faces on all this and take it out of the realm of the abstract,” Sister Helen said. Sister Helen is a hero, too. Her privileged childhood as the daughter of an attorney did little to prepare herself for serving a mission in the inner city, or her eventual crusade to abolish the death penalty. But she has taken on this role without hesitation and with a tireless energy that makes her radiant and looking much younger than her 64 years. Like Bill Pelke, she relives the pain of the six executions she witnessed every time she speaks of them. It is her mission. When dedicated abolitionists like Bill Pelke and Sister Helen Prejean join forces, amazing things happen. Other heroes join together with them, and a good idea turns into a reality. Through the dedication and hard work of these few amazing individuals, the truth of the inequality and injustice of our legal system is being spread. Myths surrounding the death penalty are being corrected. The Journey of Hope…from violence to healing is one such amazing event. October of 2003 finds over 20 members from all over the country traveling across Ohio for 17 days, speaking at schools, churches, rallies, and before civic organizations in both small towns and in large cities. These “storytellers” share their experiences, their grief, and their healing with anyone who will listen. The speakers are both members of murder victim’s families as well as death row family members. Some have national recognition, and some live a private life in obscurity until called to tell their tale. They are the silent heroes. Juan Melendez, the 24th man released from Florida’s death row due to a wrongful conviction, is a hero, too. He stands among the Journey participants as a testament to everything that is wrong with the system, and he receives enthused applause as he introduces himself. As sure as Bill Pelke and Sister Helen relive their pain when they tell their story, Juan surely must relive his pain of over 17 years on death row every time he speaks. When talking about the guys left behind, he quietly asks, “How’s everyone doing?” And, he asks how things are going—what’s new and what’s changed?
All these people, from all walks of life, have united together for the sole purpose of educating and demonstrate that forgiveness is the best method of healing. These ordinary people have come into their extraordinary roll as hero by choice and by accident, but together they work towards the same goal, and that is to promote an end to the cycle of violence. They teach that execution done in the name of the state is purely done for revenge and only creates more victims, not closure. We all have the ability to be a hero. We all have the ability and the obligation to be a part of the solution if we are able. Whether we are on the inside or the outside, we all are given the opportunity to do small things to educate others and to take on an active part in being compassionate and forgiving—with each other, and with ourselves. Together we can work for change, and together we can help heal each other by promoting forgiveness. Our lives depend on it.