Along with education and religion, art is one of three ways to get people to reflect and change consciousness about moral and social issues, author and advocate for abolishing the death penalty Sister Helen Prejean told Belmont University students and faculty Monday.

Prejean’s book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, was nominated for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. It was No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for 31 weeks. In 1996 the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen.

“Anything we do with the arts is a vocation,” Prejean said at the Tennessee Baptist school renowned for its Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business.

Prejean said Sarandon, who read the book while filming “The Client” in Memphis, Tenn., was the first person to see a need for a film of “Dead Man Walking.”

Prejean said Sarandon calls the vocation of acting “forced compassion,” meaning she portrays all kinds of people and has to imagine what it’s like to be inside their skin. Putting one’s self in the place of another, Prejean said, also makes it harder to look at people who are different, like terrorists or death-row inmates, as suspect or worthy to die. “Compassion is the opposite of that,” she said.

All the major Hollywood studios turned down Tim Robbins’ screenplay, she said, before PolyGram, a British company that made “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994, agreed to produce it.

An estimated 1.3 billion people tuned in to see the 1995 Academy Awards program that opened with Bruce Springsteen’s song “Dead Man Walking,” one of four Oscar nominations for the movie. The Oscar program aired on March 25, the Feast of Annunciation, which celebrates the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary she would give birth to the Son of God. “What an Annunciation it was,” Prejean quipped.

Robbins earned a nomination for Best Director for the film. Sean Penn was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of inmate Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers sentenced to die in the Louisiana electric chair. Prejean met Sonnier as a pen pal in 1981 and later visited and became his spiritual adviser until witnessing his execution.

Prejean said Sonnier did not want her to witness his execution, because of how it might affect her. She refused, however, to allow him to die alone. What she witnessed, she said, changed her life.

Prejean said most people don’t reflect much about the death penalty, because they don’t think it will ever affect them. Executions are “secret rituals,” she said, witnessed only by a few. They may occur only a few miles away from where a person lives but as far as that person is concerned might was well be halfway around the world.

She said the arts are a good way to raise awareness about capital punishment, because beating people over the head with arguments or judging their opinions as non-Christian closes them off.

“If you see the film ‘Dead Man Walking,’ it takes you on a journey,” she said. “Art means you present a slice of life and a moral question. You bring in people on both sides, because you respect your audience. Art is respectful. Real discourse is respectful.”

After Robbins completed a rough cut of “Dead Man Walking,” he sent it to musical artists including Steve Earle, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Johnny Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter, asking them to compose original songs for the movie soundtrack.

While she said she always talks about the role of the arts in education, she gave it more attention that usual at Belmont because of the school’s strong reputation. The Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business is the largest college at Belmont University and was rated by Time Magazine as of the “top two” music business schools in the United States

“Arts are the only way we have to take the whole person into something,” she said.

“Music takes us into the places of our heart we don’t even know we have,” she said. Prejean said music is “very mysterious and spiritual.” The way five notes are arranged, for example, can change the way a person feels.

“Dead Man Walking” was also basis for an opera that premiered in 2000, and a play Robbins turned over to universities to perform and respond with feedback. Prejean offered to have the play at Belmont. Robbins requires at least two departments–whether law, religion, ethics, art or sociology–go into the issue of capital punishment.

“The play is open for you to do,” she said. “We need theater as an integral part of an education process.”

“There is nothing like live theater,” she said, “nothing like having it here.”

Prejean said Robbins’ film is neither pro or con on the morality of capital punishment, but just a good film. The movie is very hard on her, she said, for failing to reach out to the families of Sonnier’s victims, which she admits was a mistake. The parents of one of the victims, a girl, are still angry at her, she said, and she doesn’t blame them. But the father of the other victim, a boy, she said, later taught her a lesson about forgiveness when he told her he determined the killer had taken away his son’s life but would not destroy him as well.

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning,” she said. “Forgiveness is the power of love not to be overcome by hatred. It’s to become as strong as you can be.”

Prejean urged audience members who “know where you are on this issue” to sign a petition asking Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen to extend a 90-day moratorium on executions he issued in February while the state studied its lethal injection protocol. The moratorium spared four inmates on death row but not Philip Workman. He is scheduled May 9, a week after the moratorium expires May 2.

The American Bar Association wants Bredesen to extend the moratorium and to study not just the method used to put prisoners to death, but the entire death penalty process.

Prejean encouraged audience members still undecided about the death penalty to read or watch “Dead Man Walking” and her second book, The Death of Innocents, the story of two men she accompanied to their executions, who she believes were both innocent.

“It’s a journey,” Prejean said. “You can’t preach at people. You have to take them on the same journey of heart, because it’s always about conversion of heart.”

Prejean said proceeds of book sales at Belmont would be donated to opposing the death penalty.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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