Sister Helen Prejean can be described as many things. A sister of the Catholic Church, a spiritual advisor, an author, and an anti-death penalty activist. After decades of diligent work many would think she would begin slowing down, but Prejean seems to just be getting started.
Prejean’s new book “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey” is a prequel to Prejean’s well-known first book, “Dead Man Walking.” That book, made into a Oscar-nominated movie staring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, focused on her time as a spiritual advisor to an inmate on death row in New Orleans. After working with countless death row inmates, their families, victims’ families, and witnessing six executions, Prejean became an anti-death penalty advocate. She has been a key voice against the death penalty for more than three decades.
Twenty-six years after the release of “Dead Man Walking,” Prejean is taking a more personal approach to her writing in “River of Fire,” released last month. It is a memoir about her time prior to her first encounter with death row, and her relationship with her spirituality and the Catholic Church .
Prejean is bringing her passion to various cities across the United States on a book tour, which includes a stop in Boulder next week. Prejean will appear at the Boulder Bookstore for a book signing and discussion on Tuesday. The next day she will speak at an event at the Wolf Law building on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Such public events are Prejean’s favorite part of her work.
“I didn’t even know the power of a book when I wrote ‘Dead Man Walking,’, Prejean said. “I see it happening with this book. But this book goes into spiritual motivations of people, how do we pray, how do we meditate, how do we get in touch with our deepest self, how do we not be overcome with cynicism, lack of hope, seeing all the problems, I mean all this stuff comes out in the conversation with people about this book.”
Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at CU Boulder with research interests in criminology, has worked with Prejean for 35 years. He often has his classes read “Dead Man Walking” and invites Prejean to speak at his lectures. Her events this month will be her first discussions available to the general public in the Boulder area.
“She awakens the audience. Everyone is with her. Throughout the talk, it’s not people drifting in and out of attention, she can really grip an audience and does it by telling stories of first-hand experiences,” Radelet said. “She is able to bring the reader or the people in the audience with her on what she calls her journey to death row.”
What keeps Prejean going through her work is the energy she receives from it. Currently, she is working with death row inmate Manuel Ortiz. Ortiz, originally from El Salvador, has been on death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana for more than a quarter of a century. He was convicted in 1994 of hiring someone to kill his wife, Tracie Williams, and her friend, Cheryl Mallory.
“Just the pleasure of his company. To be able to share with him. I come away from it appreciating my life, energized to do something with my life, because I’ve been in his presence,” Prejean said.
Stephanie Schindhelm is the marketing and promotions manager for the Boulder Bookstore. When she was asked if the bookstore wanted to host the event for Prejean, she knew it was something Boulder would enjoy. The bookstore sold many copies of “Dead Man Walking” in the 1990s and in the past month has seen a large response to “River of Fire.”
“We’ve had a lot of people interested in the event and are expecting a pretty big turnout,” Schindhelm said.
If you go
What: “River of Fire” book signing and discussion
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Boulder Bookstore. 1107 Pearl St.
Cost: $5 voucher. Voucher good for $5 off Prejean’s featured book or $5 off purchase the day of the event.
What: Helen Prejean — “Death is Different”
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Wittemeyer Courtroom, Wolf Law Building, University of Colorado Law School.