Sister Helen Prejean Draws Hundreds at ETSU and UTK

On Thursday, over 200 students, teachers and community members gathered at East Tennessee State University to hear from Sister Helen Prejean, author of  Dead Man Walking, in an event sponsored by the ETSU chapter of Amnesty International and other local sponsors.

In her folksy, story-telling style, she wove her personal journey with the death penalty in and out of a critical assessment of the current system, lifting up the disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color, while highlighting the needs of murder victims’ families.

With a profound humility, she shared her own learning process on this journey, particularly from surviving family members of murder like Lloyd LeBlanc, whose only son, David, along with David’s girlfriend Loretta Ann Bourque, was murdered by the Sonnier brothers in Louisiana in 1977.  Sister Helen became Patrick Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, and, in the movie, he is the person upon whom the character of Matthew Ponchelet is based.

Sister Helen calls Lloyd Leblanc “her teacher.”  She recalls that during a court hearing for Patrick Sonnier, even in her attempt to avoid LeBlanc and the other parents of the victims for fear of their reaction to her, Lloyd LeBlanc found her in the hallway and questioned why she had never reached out to him or his wife.  Of course, she couldn’t imagine that they would have wanted to hear from her since she was serving as the spiritual advisor to one of the men who murdered their child.  Lloyd LeBlanc then asked her to pray with him and shared his deep belief in the need to forgive as well as his struggle to do so.  He stated to her that he had to learn to forgive so that “Patrick Sonnier won’t kill me too,” as all the hate and rage he was carrying was eating him alive and keeping him from living.  Lloyd LeBlanc’s story is a powerful witness to all those who hear the her tell it, and she calls him the hero of  Dead Man Walking.

The following day, Friday, April 8, Sister Helen spoke to a room of one hundred on the campus of University of Tennessee at a similar event, co-sponsored by the UT Chapter of Amnesty International, TADP,  and other organizations in the area.  Again, she mesmerized and moved the crowds with the honesty of her story and her troubling assessment of the death penalty in the United States.  A huge thanks to Jonathan Calloway of the ETSU Amnesty chapter as well as to Mary Findley, TADP board member and representative for Amnesty, for their great work to make both of these events such successes. And, thanks to all who attended and to Sister Helen for her work and witness.

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