Helen Prejean speaks against death penalty, honors MLK day

Noah+Maier%2FThe+Cluster

Noah Maier/The Cluster

Noah Maier/The Cluster

Mercer honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by inviting Sister Helen Préjean to speak at its first Freedom Lecture on Monday, Jan. 17. The event, held in Willingham’s auditorium from 7:00-9:00 p.m., was accomplished through the combined efforts of Mercer staff, students and members of the Macon community.

The inaugural Freedom Lecture opened with footage of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which played on the screen in Willingham as attendees took their seats. After President Underwood welcomed guests and delivered the invocation, the “Macon Eight”—eight of Macon’s religious leaders from different backgrounds and denominations—took the stage to read selections from King’s writings, offering themselves as a united front in rebuttal to the eight Birmingham ministers to whom King addressed his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

The Macon Eight were followed by a performance of the hymn “Oh, Oh, Freedom” by the choir of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and a reading of Isaiah 61:1. Sister Préjean was then introduced by Regeneration writers Gloria Jordan, whose father was executed on death row, and Andrew Legare, a former death row inmate. After the introductions Préjean herself approached the podium.

Préjean, a nun of the Roman Catholic Church, has been a leading voice for the abolition of the death penalty ever since she began communicating with a death row inmate. Through their interaction she came to know him so well that she became his spiritual adviser. When the time came, Préjean accompanied him to his execution and was “the face of Christ” for him until the moment he was killed. Préjean’s book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, documents her experience during that process.

Since that experience, Préjean has accompanied five men to their executions, counseled the families of murderers and victims and spoken out in many different forums against the death penalty. In the Freedom Lecture, Préjean spoke with fire and passion against the legality of the death penalty in Georgia.

A book signing was intended to follow the Freedom Lecture, but due to the South’s recent streak of bad weather the books failed to make it to Mercer. However, those who wished to purchase signed copies of Préjean’s Dead Man Walking and Death of Innocents could fill out order slips for later delivery.

The event has been in the works for two years, since the idea was first broached in Margaret Eskew’s writing class and workshop for nontraditional students. The class, which wrote and compiled the first issue of an annual journal titled “Regeneration,” wanted to have a writing workshop in which an influential published author came to speak and give writing advice. Having worked with Préjean before in New Orleans at a conference regarding the death penalty, Eskew knew that Préjean would be willing to come speak for whatever limited funds Eskew could raise. Additionally, Préjean’s ideals and passion had been so influential to the class that they had dedicated their first issue of “Regeneration” to her.

“All of this related to what she had been doing,” Eskew said, speaking of the ethos behind the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event.

Raising money for the event—the Freedom Lecture and the writing workshop which preceded it—was a “faith endeavor,” Eskew said. Uncertain of what they would be able to offer Préjean, she approached the Office of the Provost and received a sum to help with the lecture, though not enough to cover the event. Eskew was prepared to dip into her retirement fund to make up the deficit, but then churches in Macon—St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and Centenary United Methodist Church—began to pledge funds to match what was provided by the provost. Additionally, a number of anonymous sponsors made contributions to cover the cost of the writing workshop.

“It was a true community effort,” said Diane Lang, one of the program directors for the event. “It really was Dr. Eskew having a vision and people coming together and making it happen.”

During the writing workshop that preceded the Freedom Lecture, Préjean spoke about the process of completing her book Dead Man Walking, relating advice her editor had given her. The workshop, called the “Writing as Praying” workshop, included a dinner for the attendees, table discussions regarding subjects of perception in relation to writing and readings from the Regeneration writers. A period of socializing followed the event, allowing the attendees to talk to Préjean and to one another.

“I think it went very well,” Lang said. “It was well-received.”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event will be an annual event for Mercer. According to the press release for the inaugural lecture, the event will endeavor “to bring leading thinkers to the University whose vision reflects the values of faith, education, freedom, community and morality expressed in the institution’s mission and in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.”—those who, as Préjean would say, “have the fire.”

She concluded her speech by saying, “Please God that tonight—a rainy night in Georgia—a fire has been lit.”

With the first Freedom Lecture successfully concluded and a new Mercer tradition begun, perhaps it has.