Founder’s Day speaker urges students to “catch on fire” through action and passion

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By Mary Nicholas, News Editor

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, Illinois Wesleyan University celebrated its 162nd Founder’s Day through a combination of social awareness and free cake.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, spoke at the morning convocation to an ample audience in Westbrook Auditorium.

“Think of this as a collage,” said Prejean who then pensively described scenes from her journey as a spiritual advisor to prisoners on death row.

She remembered rediscovering the Bible verse Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you came to me,” when she resolved to visit her first spiritual advisee, Patrick Sonnier, a Georgia inmate convicted of murder and rape.

She recalls that when she saw Sonnier’s face through a mesh screen, even knowing he had killed, she was left astounded by “his humanness.”

Prejean reflected on the night of Sonnier’s execution. Though the prison guards left Prejean and Sonnier alone during his final hours but seemed to “psyched themselves up for a killing.”

Guards covered Sonnier’s head with a cloth bag, but when Prejean reached out her hand, he was able to find her face during his final moments. Prejean admired that the film Dead Man Walking, in which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Prejean, adhered to such an accurate account of the execution.

“They killed a man with fire tonight,” said Prejean drawing from her book. “I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. It set my world on fire and that fire burns in me still.”

Sonnier’s execution “plunged me into the other side of this outrage that consumes humanity when innocent people are murdered,” she said. Prejean then shared how her cause was all about “catching on fire.”

“That really resonated with me,” said senior Rachel Carreras who performed a duet of “Down to the River to Pray” with junior Hannah McCoy  Carreras and McCoy appreciate how the fire in Prejean allowed her to “speak out against injustice and step out into the world to spread her message.”

The singers also felt the music they were asked to provide accompanied Prejean’s message appropriately. “It was so fitting because her speech was all about surrendering yourself to God’s work,” said McCoy of “Down to the River to Pray.” “It’s so inspiring how she is willing to walk the path so few people would choose,” said Carreras. “And especially with people who are so often forgotten,” said McCoy.

IWU Provost Jonathon Green believed Prejean’s speech also aligned with values IWU seeks to impart each Founder’s Day. “I think that our founders clearly had in mind that part of higher education is to help us be better citizens,” Green said. “I think Prejean provides a remarkable example of using what we’ve learned to take positive action.”

Green went on to cite that students on campus have taken such action within this school year alone. “The Student Senate has created a community engagement office which we’ve never had before,” he said. “Students here want to take action to help the community.”

Last September, the Illinois Wesleyan chapter of Amnesty International organized a campaign to aid a victim on death row in Georgia, Troy Davis. Despite the petition circulated among students outside the Bertholf commons which was sent to aid Davis, the state of Georgia executed him on Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace.

Sophomore Amnesty officer Kelsey Rae Brattin said Prejean still “appreciated what we had done for the Davis case.”

Since Prejean herself accompanied five more convicted men to their deaths after Sonnier,  “she helped us realize that even though Davis was executed, our efforts were not a failure because of the momentum we generated on campus and the international attention amnesty groups all over the nation helped reign in,” said Brattin.

Brattin also shared her optimism that the campus gained social awareness through the campaign, remembering how several students who supported the death penalty were still willing to sign the petition when informed that there was “reasonable doubt”  concerning Davis’ guilt.

“Everyone that signed our petition against Davis’s execution, everyone that took a moment of silence in his memory, or anyone who reflected on their views of the death penalty are now our allies in the struggle for compassion and honest justice,” she said.

“We like to think we live in these separate bubbles,” Prejean said at one point in her speech, using the term students employ when contemplating Wesleyan’s campus and community. “But if a lion steps on a mouse’s tail while you’re there, and you say, ‘I’m neutral,’ the mouse doesn’t appreciate it.”

Prejean also cautioned, “Don’t think that because Illinois repealed the death penalty that the urge to use capital punishment has left. The journey to ‘forgive one another our trespasses’ always continues on, as if like a river. Two weeks later we have to wake up and go through it again when another teenager is killed.”

Like McCoy and Carreras, President Wilson admired Prejean’s personal journey to forgive and believe “we are all worth more than the worst thing we’ve done in our life.”

“You clearly have both the passion that gives your life’s river direction and the fire that gives you action,” he said after Prejean received a standing ovation for her speech.

Prejean offered students several ways to use their passion to take action and, thus, “catch on fire.” Universities can participate in the “Dead Man Walking Theatre Project” in which they are permitted to produce the play of Prejean’s story to raise awareness on campus.

Students may also contact the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty to “become more informed and push the abolition process forward.”

“What a tremendous opportunity you’ve been given to find your passion and make a difference,” she said to the students of Illinois Wesleyan. “I pray your river’s current will bring you something big and something noble and worthy.”

Wilson reminded students that the founders shared the same anticipation 162 years ago. He quoted the inscription on the Founder’s gates, also painted on the wall in the Ames rotunda: “We stand in a position of incalculable responsibility,” he said.