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OLLI at OSU to host Prelude to Justice: Art, Reform and the Work of Sister Helen Prejean

By Darla Shelden, City Sentinel Reporter

STILLWATER, OK  The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Oklahoma State University (OLLI at OSU), in partnership with the Oklahoma Humanities Council, the OSU Michael and Anne Greenwood School of Music, and the McKnight Center for the Performing Arts, will host a special series beginning this month focusing on the work of anti-death penalty advocate, Sister Helen Prejean

Prelude to Justice: Art, Reform and the Work of Sister Helen Prejean will be centered on jurisprudence, the criminal justice system, and recovery through art.  

The five-week, six-session series begins July 29 and is open to the public. 

All events will be held at the McKnight Center on the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater. Participation via livestream will be available for those outside Stillwater. 

Tickets are $40 for OLLI at OSU members and $50 for non-members. To learn more and to register, visit okla.st/prejean.

Author of three booksDead Man Walking, The Death of Innocents, and River of Fire, Prejean has ministered to those on death row. Her activism has been instrumental in raising national dialogue on capital punishment.

Prejean is the spiritual advisor to Richard Glossip, who has been on Oklahoma’s death row for 23 years.

In January 2015, Prejean received a call from Glossip. She said, “he had put me down as someone he wanted to be present when he was executed.” She accepted because she believes the death penalty is wrong even if she thinks a person is guilty. “However, in this case, I believe he is innocent,” Prejean said. 

The Prelude to Justice series will feature a screening of the film Dead Man Walking along with panel and book discussions. Prejean will join via livestream for two classes, including an interactive question-and-answer session. 

A New Orleans Roman Catholic nun from Louisiana, Prejean experienced a spiritual transformation and renewed her commitment to a life of social justice in the early 1980s. Coming from a privileged background, she moved to the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans, where she witnessed crime and social inequality.

While there, Prejean was asked to write to death row inmates as part of the Order’s community outreach program.  After exchanging several letters with Pat Sonnier, who had been convicted of the kidnap and murder of two teenagers, Prejean became his spiritual advisor and was with him to the end witnessing his execution by electrocution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

In the following months, she became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who was to meet the same fate as Sonnier.

Sister Prejean realized executions are shrouded in secrecy, and because of her life changing experience and her belief that the death penalty is morally wrong, she felt it was her calling to share the difficult details of her experience with the public. 

The result was her book,Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States

According to New Yorker Magazine, in 1993, the book, “Dead Man Walking” spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was translated into ten languages. 

Thebook later becamea feature film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen (a role for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress) and later the Dead Man Walking Opera.

“Art helps us explore alternatives, allows us to make new choices, and brings us to a deeper place where all this reflection can happen,” Prejean said. “This opera is particularly helpful as audiences navigate the moral dilemmas that surround capital punishment.”

Jake Haggie, director of the Dead Man Walking Opera stated, “Since the San Francisco Opera premiere in 2000, the opera has received more than 300 performances by 70 international companies on five continents.”

“My delight is that you can take an art form like opera and you can help people go on a really deep spiritual journey of conscience about a moral issue, and that’s what Dead Man Walking does,” Prejean told The City Sentinel

She also told this reporter that “this very morning” she was putting “pen to paper” on her new book, Riding the Mighty River (working title).

This Journey,” the aria from the opera Dead Man Walking, is all about unfolding your conscience and making your way into unchartered waters and then learning where it takes you, which is what happened to me when I got involved with death row inmates,” Prejean said. “The journey – that’s the core of it.”

The Prelude to Justice series concludes Aug. 28 with a live operatic performance by OSU Greenwood School of Music mezzo-soprano and event co-organizer April Golliver-Mohiuddin, along with collaborative pianist Megan Barth Argo and assisted by Erin Murphy (flute) and Emma Draves (contemporary dance). The performance will feature works composed by Jake Heggie and words by Prejean. 

“I want to encourage people to attend this unique experience that I believe will inspire and educate,” said April Golliver-Mohiuddin. “I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Sister Helen Prejean and even more so after watching the opera Dead Man Walkingcomposed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally.  Music touches souls. Thus, the concept of combining music’s healing and rejuvenating power with an educational series focused on our criminal justice system and restoring humanity to all people became my inspiration.

She continued, “Creating this series has changed my life forever and I hope it will inspire others to ‘catch on fire’ by becoming engaged citizens within our communities. I will end my recital with a hymn titled ‘He will gather us around.’ 

She added, “As we gather for this series, may we all unite and work towards a more loving and compassionate world.” 

Series sponsors include the Oklahoma Humanities, the Oklahoma Arts Council, OSU Department of Sociology, OSU Office of Institutional Diversity, College of Arts & Sciences, and other local community partners.

Robbin Davis, OLLI Director said, “April invited Darin Williams from the McKnight Center to join us and we became a merry band of three and we’ve been planning and scheming for the greater good ever since. During the planning of this event, we have all had moving experiences as we continue to uncover ways to bring light to the criminal justice system and those incarcerated. We want the participants of Prelude to Justice to have similar experiences and each of the sessions have been designed with that intent.”

To reserve tickets for Prelude to Justice: Art, Reform and the Work of Sister Helen Prejean, contact OLLI at OSU at 405-744-5686. Learn more at olli.okstate.edu.

Prelude to Justice Series Schedule:

Session 1 – Thursday, July 29, 6 p.m. – Series introduction with Sister Helen Prejean, April Golliver-Mohiuddin, Darin Williams, Robbin Davis and Arthur “Art” LeFrancois, jurisprudence scholar.

Session 2 – Thursday, Aug. 5, 6 p.m. – Movie viewing of Dead Man Walking with a cinematic introduction by OSU emerita Dr. Vickie Sturgeon.  (The movie will not be available via livestream).

Session 3 – Thursday, Aug. 12, 6 p.m. – Panel Discussion – Moderated by Art LeFrancois
Panelists:
Vicki Behenna, Executive Director, Oklahoma Innocence Project.
Kris Steele, Executive Director, TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry), 2011-2013 Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives
Christy Sheppard, Ada native, licensed family therapist. Christy’s cousin was murdered in 1982 and the men convicted of her murder were later found innocent. Christy will tell about her family’s experience.
Michelle L. Estes, Graduate Research Assistant and PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology-Oklahoma State University (joining via live streaming)
OK State Rep. Mauree Turner – criminal justice reform advocate.

Session 4 – Thursday, Aug. 19, 6 p.m. – Book Study Wrap-up and Presentation – “Pain, Healing and Recovery Through Art” with April Golliver-Mohiuddin and Dr. Shelia Kennison, OSU Professor of Psychology and Associate Editor, Current Psychology.

Session 5 – Thursday, Aug. 26, 6 p.m. – Live Q&A with Sister Helen Prejean and April Golliver-Mohiuddin – Covering Sister Helen’s life’s work and advocacy for the abolishment of the death penalty, wrongful conviction, unjust prison sentencing and her ministry of death row inmates. Discussion will include her books River of FireDead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents.

Session 6 – Saturday, Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m. – Live PerformanceMusic & Humanity – April Golliver-Nohiuddin, collaborative pianist Megan Barth Argo, assisted by Erin Murphy (flute) and Emma Draves (contemporary dance). Music by Jack Heggie and words by Sister Helen Prejean.

The Prelude to Justice series concludes on Saturday, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m.,with a live operatic performance by OSU Greenwood School of Music mezzo-soprano and event co-organizer April Golliver-Mohiuddin. Photo provided.
Prelude to Justice series speakers will include Vicki Behenna, Executive Director, Oklahoma Innocence Project; Kris Steele, Executive Director, TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry); and Christy Sheppard, Ada native and licensed family therapist, whose cousin was murdered in 1982 and the men convicted of her murder were later found innocent.