Dead Man Walking: Sister Helen Prejean in Conversation About Faith, Art, and Social Justice
Event Sponsored by Andrew's Angels
In advance of its season-opening production of Jake Heggie’s masterpiece Dead Man Walking, the Metropolitan Opera partners with The Sheen Center to present a discussion addressing the impact of the arts on social justice practices and the relationships among faith, prison reform, and the death penalty.
Sister Helen Prejean, author of the memoir Dead Man Walking, joins scholars, ministers, and advocates of the formerly incarcerated to explore the tribulations of the American prison system and the opportunity for art and literature to prompt change.
- Sr. Helen Prejean
- Prof. Kathryn Reklis, Associate Professor, Department of Theology, Fordham University
- Christina Swarns, Executive Director of the Innocence Project.
- Rev. Zachariah Presutti, S.J. (Founder of Thrive for Life Prison Project
- Christopher Browner, Senior Editor for Marketing and Communications, Metropolitan Opera
Additional Ticket Information
Seniors, students, veterans, clergy, and employees of the Archdiocese of New York receive a $5 discount on tickets with valid ID. Please contact our box office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (212) 219-3132 for more information and to purchase tickets.
Jamila became Equal Justice USA’s second executive director in 2021, bringing more than 15 years of criminal justice experience as a prosecutor, policy advisor, and technical assistance provider. Her goal is to establish EJUSA as a leader in building solutions to violence outside of the criminal legal system by demonstrating the impact of EJUSA’s work and expanding its reach throughout the country. She comes to EJUSA after launching the Reshaping Prosecution Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, where she and her team worked with progressive prosecutors, community-based organizations, and people impacted by the system to develop policy and practice reforms to end mass incarceration and reduce racial disparities within the system. One of the signature initiatives she launched was Motion for Justice, which centers racial equity in transforming the role of the prosecutor and aims to implement concrete racial equity strategies in partnership with community-based organizations. Before Vera, Jami logged many achievements across a 12-year career in the U.S. Department of Justice as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. She spent four of those years as a community prosecutor focused on intervention and prevention of harm. She also served in the Office of Legal Policy, where she helped shape policies for people returning from incarceration and those seeking access to counsel in criminal proceedings. Later, she worked in the office of then-Vice President Joe Biden as an advisor on criminal justice and drug policies. Jami has demonstrated her expertise on CBS, MSNBC, ABC Nightline, and many other media outlets. She earned her law degree from Duke University School of Law and her bachelor of arts in psychology and sociology at the University of Michigan.
Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean is known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. She has been instrumental in sparking national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping the Catholic Church’s vigorous opposition to all executions.
Born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957. After studies in the USA and Canada, she spent the following years teaching high school, and serving as the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans and the Formation Director for her religious community.
In 1982, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor. While there, Sister Helen began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. Two years later, when Patrick Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair, Sister Helen was there to witness his execution. 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.
After witnessing these executions, Sister Helen realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away, and so she sat down and wrote a book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Dead Man Walking hit the shelves when national support for the death penalty was over 80% and, in Sister Helen’s native Louisiana, closer to 90%. The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and it inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a play and an opera. Sister Helen also embarked on a speaking tour that continues to this day.
Sister Helen works with people of all faiths and those who follow no established faith, but her voice has had a special resonance with her fellow Catholics. Over the decades, Sister Helen has made personal approaches to two popes, John Paul II and Pope Francis, urging them to establish the Catholic Church’s position as unequivocally opposed to capital punishment under any circumstances. After Sister Helen’s urging, under John Paul II the catechism was revised to strengthen the church’s opposition to executions, although it allowed for a very few exceptions. Not long after meeting with Sister Helen in August of 2018, Pope Francis announced new language of the Catholic Catechism which declares that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, with no exceptions.
Today, although capital punishment is still on the books in 30 states in the USA, it has fallen into disuse in most of those states. Prosecutors and juries alike are turning away from death sentences, with the death penalty becoming increasingly a geographical freak. Sister Helen continues her work, dividing her time between educating the public, campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. Sister Helen’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, was published in 2004; and her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,
Rev. Zachariah Presutti, S.J.
Father Zach met the Jesuits while studying for diocesan priesthood at Canisius College in Buffalo. After four years of serving as the Pastoral Associate at St. Paul’s Church in Kenmore, New York, he joined St. Andrew’s Hall Novitiate in Syracuse, New York where he did apostolic work in the local jail and supported victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in an emergency shelter. During First Studies he obtained a Masters in Clinical Social Work at St. Louis University while interning at the local state correctional facility offering individual and group therapeutic interventions to men detained in administrative segregation (solitary confinement). After graduating, Zach founded Thrive for Life Prison Project in New York City. Fr. Zach currently oversees Thrive For Life as its Executive Director and also serves as a chaplain in the New York City Department of Corrections.
Kathryn Reklis came to Fordham in 2012 after earning her PhD from Yale University, with prior degrees from Yale Divinity School, and undergraduate study in English Literature, creative writing, and documentary photography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She currently serves as the Co-Director of the Comparative Literature program at Fordham and is an Affiliate Faculty in American Studies. Blending methods from cultural history, critical theory, and literary study, she is interested in the conditions of possibility that make theological belief and practice possible at any given moment. This means that she examines the historical context, material conditions, intellectual histories, personal relationships, affective states, and networks of exchange and power that contribute to different ways of being Christian at different times and places. Her work is focused on modern Protestant Christian history (18th-20th century) in the colonial context, but she is also interested in what theology does in the world today and how it does it. In particular, most of her research projects explore different ways Christian theologians and ordinary Christians appeal to beauty, art, and embodied experience as an alternative to the aridity and rationalism they perceive in modernity and also to interrogating how those appeals situate Christian theology among supposedly secular modes of knowing and being.
Her first book-length project, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2014), examines Jonathan Edwards’s contribution to the public debates around the ecstatic and excessive bodily performances of 18th century religious revivals as a way of tracing an alternative modern subjectivity to the one being forged in the confluence of early global capitalism and early Enlightenment rationalism. Situating Edwards in conversation with discourses about the making of modernity in the 18th century also relocates North American Reformed theology in its circum-Atlantic context, a context that describes the exchange of goods and ideas in circulation from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas that created the material conditions for modernity.
She is currently working on two interconnected projects on the relationship between religion and literature. The first is a cultural and theological history of Religion and Literature programs formed in the mid-20th century. She explores both what these concrete programs teach us about how theology was conceived in relationship to the formation of humanities curricula and liberal arts education and how a “literary mode” of studying religion informs present debates about what experiences are knowable and worth knowing. The second seeks to answer the question “Is the ‘world’ in ‘World Literature’ the same as the ‘world’ in ‘World Religion’” and explores the possibilities and limits of thinking “the world” at the brink of the planet.
At Fordham, she teaches courses on modern Christian history, colonialism and empire, aesthetics and modernity, digital religion, and American Evangelicalism. She has regularly taught the American Studies Senior Seminar and advises undergraduates in Theology, Comparative Literature, and American Studies.
From 2018-2020 she served as the principal investigator for a grant on Shaker Art, Design, and Religion (funded by the Henry Luce Foundation) in partnership with the Shaker Museum New Lebanon which brought together academics from religious studies and art history with practicing artists and museum professionals to explore Shaker legacy and public memory. From 2010-2017 she was a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at the Christian Theological Seminary, where she wrote regularly on theology, religious practice, and new media use and with whom she orchestrated a teaching program on new media and theology at Fordham. She was the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, which she co-founded in 2009 with artist AA Bronson. And she is the Screentime columnist and a Contributing Editor for The Christian Century. She is an avid TV watcher and a PTA mom who lives in Astoria, Queens with her spouse and children.
About The Photo
Pictured in the image on this page are Mezzo-Soprano Joyce DiDonato and Bass-Baritone Ryan McKiney. These performers will NOT be participating in the panel event.