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People are more than their actions

| Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“I hate you.” The worst thing I have ever done is say these words to my mom. I was 12, impatient and unsure of the power of my voice. So I tested my words on her. I abused her with them. I hurt her.

It’s taken eight years, hard conversations and long reflections for me to realize that I couldn’t possibly comprehend the strength of my mother. I will never know the courage that it took for her to step on that plane to a new country that she had no connection to except through dreams. I will never know the difficulties she faced in trying to survive a land that treated her like an alien rather than a person. I will never understand how I have hurt her in my articulations, my absences and my being her daughter.

As a part of a Center for Social Concerns course, I had the chance to speak to Fr. Tom McNally, a retired priest who ministers to those on death row every Thursday. He talks about the injustice of how so many in the prison are obviously mentally ill and talks warmly of each of the inmates. He himself is a warm, gentle man, and you find yourself nodding as he talks about the inherent worth of each life. However, when he begins to recount the murders committed, you feel your blood curdle. When you hear how someone has murdered every single member of his family, has slain his one-and-a-half year old, you stop nodding.

A one-and-a-half year old. 1 and a half years old. Not even a child, but an infant. Are you really still human if you can murder your whole entire family, stopping only when the blood of a baby stains your hands? You may wash your hands clean, and you may say the moment has passed, but I am not sure if the worth of your life will ever again be worth anything. These phrases of inherent dignity and the worth of a life are such intangible, untouchable and maybe even irrelevant concepts when you first hear that a one-and-a-half year old is slain. Yet, these concepts are at the heart of Sr. Helen Prejean’s story.

Sr. Helen, on whom “Dead Man Walking” is based, is a nun and national advocate against the death penalty. In her recent visit to South Bend, she shared her guilt in ministering to those on death row. She recounted discovering the files of two friends on death row, recounted the ugliness of their crimes consuming her. She spoke of the father of a victim, the real hero of any story she can weave about the death penalty, who reached out to her and to the mother of the murderer in question. Forgiveness is not an easy choice, but the enduring strength of the soul. However, returning to her subjects, Sister Helen emphasized that those on death row are not just ugly criminals that need forgiving. They are people, and “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”

I think about the worst thing I have ever done, and of course it is not comparable to the crimes committed by those on death row. Yet, how could any action ever describe or define an individual? I am more than the proclamation of hate to my mother, more than the written love letters to trees, more than any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ action can depict. You are more than the worst thing you have ever done. You are also so much more than the best thing you have ever done. You are. Doesn’t that extend to every single person — even those on death row?

If you are interested in learning more about the death penalty, please contact the Center of Social Concerns or the Catholic Worker in South Bend.

Sherry Zhong
Pasquerilla West

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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