Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling death row chronicle “Dead Man Walking,” returned to Temple Beth Israel in Eugene on Oct. 17 for her second visit in slightly less than a year.
This time she was joined by a panel of Northwest luminaries that included Seattle’s Rabbi Will Berkovitz from “Repair the World,” the Rev. Melanie Oommen associate minister at Eugene’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, University of Oregon Philosophy Professor Cheyney Ryan, and UO Graduate Teaching Fellow Katie Dwyer, a participant in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The university was a major sponsor of this event.
The ostensible subject of the panel discussion was “Religion, Ethics and Personal Responsibility,” but in reality, the first hour was primarily a dialogue between Prejean and Berkovitz on the types of inspiration they had each derived from the biblical burning bush that called out to Moses.
The next half hour was devoted to audience participation focused on a “Repair the World” handout that asked what meaningful task each individual was trying to complete in their life, how this could change the world, and what keeps people motivated to continue an uphill struggle when it seems easier to give up.
TBI member Paul Solomon responded to those questions by sharing an overview of his work with “Sponsors” (www.sponsorsinc.org), a service that helps ex-prisoners reintegrate into society.
The burning bush symbology reentered several parts of the discussion. Prejean had actually spoken of this during her last appearance in Eugene when she said, “That fire was a flame that illuminated my spiritual energy, igniting my compassion.”
Prejean talked about what led up to her passion for opposing the death penalty, declaring that, “What looks like courage on the outside, on the inside feels like Grace. When we find our calling, we find the fire, the energy within. The bush may burn, but it is never consumed.”
Berkovitz pointed out that in order for Moses to recognize that the burning bush wasn’t being consumed, he couldn’t just pass by and glance at it; he had to stop long enough to observe the process.
“And then, the Tanakh tells us, that wasn’t enough. Moses had to look again from another perspective, from the side, to confirm what he thought he saw. And when he finally asks why this is happening, he hears God call out his name, and Moses answers, ‘Here I am!’ And that is really at the heart of a call to service. To observe, to recognize, and to willingly stand ready to fulfill a task you know you’ve been chosen to do.”
Dwyer added a rejoinder, saying it was hearing the hymn ‘Here I am, Lord!’ while still in high school that convinced her to embark upon a path of social justice. “Like Sister Prejean,” she said, “I had also lived a life of privilege with little or no want. Working in prisons, I found meaning for my own life in trying to heal the brokenness of other people.”
Prejean had explained that in her privileged youth, it took a while for her to become fully aware of the plight of poor blacks in her pre-civil rights state of Louisiana.
During several exchanges between Prejean and Berkovitz, the feisty Catholic nun expressed admiration for Jewish wisdom and the ability to reflect upon and extract deeper meaning from nearly every word in the Bible.
“I still remember, right here in this temple a year ago,” she said, “Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin gave me a completely new insight into the concept of ‘an eye for an eye.’ It’s not about vengeance, Rabbi Yitz informed me, but rather an admonition to empathize with the damage one has inflicted upon another—to try to restore to the injured party what’s been taken, to make his pain your pain. I’ve never forgotten that. It totally changed my view.”
For his part, Berkovitz confessed, “My favorite rabbis were priests! I was the only Jew attending an all-Catholic university, and on a class trip to Jamaica, I remember the priests successfully fielding some really hard theology questions tossed at them by students. I knew then, that this is what I needed to be doing in Judaism.”
Before becoming a rabbi, Berkovitz was the 1995-97 director of UO’s Hillel House. He met Professor Cheyney Ryan (who moderated this panel) in the Department of Philosophy and together they enabled a major international conference called “Ethics After the Holocaust,” which brought Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and other notable speakers to the UO campus in May of 1996.
Sister Prejean, now internationally recognized as one of the world’s foremost anti-death-penalty activists, was also once a nominee for the Noble Peace Prize. Her visit to Eugene included an interactive workshop for high school youth on activism and faith at First United Methodist Church on Oct. 16, and a public lecture at the UO School of Law on Oct. 18. All events were free and open to the public. Prejean sold and signed copies of her book, with some proceeds going to programs to end capital punishment.