Image credit: Chris Taggart/Fordham University

Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking” and a leading activist against capital punishment, received an honorary degree at Fordham’s 179th Commencement on May 18. Here is a transcript of her brief talk to the crowd of more than 20,000 people, which included some 3,300 students receiving bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. 

Sister Helen’s remarks came at a time of heightened tensions on campuses and at graduation ceremonies due to student protests over the conflict in Israel and Gaza. While she did not mention those issues directly, her remarks went to the heart of her vision of pursuing the cause of justice in today’s world. 

It’s Pentecost, and I have nothing for you but fire. Saint Bonaventure said, “More than understanding, ask for the fire.” And let me tell you a little—it’s going to be short—about the fire in my life and what happened as I began to discern and follow the gospel of Jesus. 

For a long time, as a privileged person that grew up in the deep South, I thought the gospel was all about charity, being kind to people around you. But then I heard that the gospel was about justice. And I know that in the Jesuit tradition, it is all about being the person that gets out of our tiny selves to be for others. But it’s also [that] the gospel is about justice. And that led me to move in and live among African American people in New Orleans who were striving and struggling against both racism and poverty.

They became my teachers, and it’s when I was in that environment where I got an invitation one day to write [to] a man on death row. And I don’t know if you studied this in theology yet, but you’ve got to watch out for “sneaky Jesus.” I wrote the man a letter. I didn’t think he was going to be executed. I had no experience with any of it. And when Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted to death by the state of Louisiana in the early morning hours of April 5th, 1984, I was there and I witnessed his killing, and that fire began to burn in me, and from that moment on, coming out of that execution chamber in the dark, in the middle of the night, I began on my mission to bring the death penalty close to the people so that we can understand that the state killing people doesn’t heal anybody. 

[APPLAUSE]

I made my way over to the victims’ families, who also taught me. And think of it, the average waiting time where we still have the death penalty in the deep South, ex-slave states, is a seventeen-year wait for victims’ families from the time a person is sentenced to death to the time they’re killed. 

And look at this—what the promises made to them is: all this time their grief is public they will get to sit on the front row and watch as the state kills the one who killed their loved one, and that comes with a promise of peace or closure.

I have hope, when this issue gets close to the American public, I’ve noticed how most people, they’ve never reflected on it and they change.

I invite you to do civic discourse—not name-calling and demeaning and argument. I have had to learn how to be persuasive, to share experience and information with people. And I began when the support for the death penalty in Louisiana was at 90 percent. You are among the privileged people of this American society because you are educated, you can be articulate, you can raise your voice in the public square, and you can be on the side of poor people or people without a voice. 

That’s the fire, so I pray that you’ve had your own fire! Happy graduation!

David Gibson is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.