Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dead Man Walking (a catch-up entry)

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

William Faulkner

In 1964, David Chevrier and my sister, Eloise, young newly weds, came to the town of Saxton’s River, Vermont, where David was to have his first ministry (of 6 years at Christ Church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ). During this time he also served as the chaplain of Vermont Academy, a boy’s prep school here in town. After a second ministry of 33 years at Wellington Avenue United Church in Chicago, Eloise and David have returned here to Saxton’s River, living in a 200-year-old house that has been their great retirement project to refurbish.

On friday, October 12th, we attended a student assembly at VA (Vermont Academy) and had the privilege of hearing a wonderful speaker, Sister Helen Prejean, who many of you will know through the character played by Susan Sarandan in the film “Dead Man Walking.”

This movie, for which Susan was honoured with an academy award, told Sister Helen’s story of the end of innocence, which came with her role as spiritual advisor to Lloyd LeBlanc, on death row in Louisiana for the murder of two high school boys. In her engaging address, Sister Helen “took us places” that were hard for her to share and for us to hear, because of the pain of all those involved: the accused, the victim’s family members and those charged with the responsibility for carrying out the death penalty. The atmosphere in the assembly hall was intensely alert as Sister Helen related her personal experiences and effectively challenged these young people to “think about” the issue of capital punishment for themselves and its consequences.

Amnesty International defines “torture” as “extreme mental or physical assault on someone rendered defenceless.” Though surely not condoning violence and respectful of the need for a good prison system, Sister Helen helped us to see the death penalty within this context. 130 out of 190 countries of the United Nations no longer legally condone the use of the Death Penalty. Just six countries continue in the practise, including Japan, China, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States.

Following Sister Helen’s moving words, we were treated to the wonderful jazz voice and trumpet of Afro-American Michael Austin, for 27 years an innocent man who lived accused on death row. When Michael played, leading off with a piece he wrote, entitled “We’re all in this together”, it felt as if Gabriel himself had come among us with his horn of truth.

In response to my query whether Sister Helen might come to Canada to help our young people more fully appreciate the history of our country on this subject, she replied: “Though I’ve spoken in Canada, I have too much to accomplish right here in the United States.” However, Helen Prejean along with Tim Robbins (director of ‘Dead Man Walking’) has written a stage play of the story for high school productions. You can inquire after this play through the following email: - play project.

Lil & Peter with Michael Austin and Sister Helen Prejean