mad in pursuit journal

DISPATCHED FROM THE CROSSROADS, AT THE intersection OF courage and comfort

Dead Man Walking

Last night we watched "Dead Man Walking" (1995) with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Based on the story of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun agrees to become the spiritual advisor to Matthew Poncelet, a two-time rapist-murderer on death row. It's a great addition to my list of movies with women heroes. Sr. Helen willingly crosses the threshold of a lonely spiritual journey, surrounded by vengeful victims' families, shrill anti-death-penalty advocates, and a very guilty "client." Her willingness to answer this call, in spite of her fear, helped achieve reconciliation for the "dead man walking."

Here's a contrasting story. After I got an essay on Gandhi published, a woman emailed me. Her cousin was in prison. He had read my essay in the paper and wanted to correspond with me about Gandhi. I looked him up in the New York state prison database. Turns out the cousin was 20 years into a murder sentence. Oy.

Sr. Helen was not in the prison ministry. She was a social worker who received a letter from Poncelet out of the blue. She didn't have a clue what she was getting herself into. She simply responded to the call.

What did I do? NOTHING. I didn't even respond to the email. I sort of wanted to do it, but it just didn't feel safe. Blabbing about philosophy is one of my favorite pastimes — but with a murderer? I'm no social worker. Maybe he was already redeemed — philosophizing with everyone. Or maybe he was angling for parole by getting people like me to vouch for his nonviolent character. You heae about well-meaning bleeding hearts getting caught up in a prisoner's cause — usually without a redemptive ending. But I didn't know how to explain myself in an email response. I understand that our prison system is full of injustice and that exchange between strangers can be ennobling, but if I'm going to put myself out on a limb to someone, it's not going to be for a convicted killer. I couldn't find a way of saying that politely. I could only imagine myself being stalked and killed.

Joseph Campbell said that heroes get the adventure that they are ready for. Sr. Helen was spiritually prepared to take on the lonely and frightening journey with Matthew Poncelet. I, uh, have some cartoons I gotta finish...


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