When we first look at Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, many of us feel we can pat ourselves on the back. Acts of charity: Feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty? Oh, sure, I’ve given to World Vision and water projects. Befriending a stranger? Yes, I’m the friendliest person to be found in our church greeting time. Clothing the naked? Goodwill gets my every garment when they go out of fashion. But visiting the prisoner? That stops many of us short.
Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose life is portrayed in the film Dead Man Walking, didn’t initially have a ministry focused on prisoners. We see her working with the poor, teaching children in an institution called Hope House. We learn that though she came from a somewhat privileged background, this white woman choose to live in a poor, African American community in Louisiana. But a letter she received from an inmate changed the course of her life.
Death row convict Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) wrote Sister Helen and asked for legal aid, and, if not that, at least some company. She asks around in her order for advice, and someone said, “Sounds like he could use some encouragement”.
When the sister (played by Susan Sarandon) comes to the prison, her cross sets off the metal detector. Before seeing the prisoner, she's required to speak with the priest in charge of visitation. He is concerned by her casual dress (she's not wearing a habit), afraid it might indicated a tone of rebellion. He wants to know her motives for coming, “Morbid fascination? Liberal sympathy?” He makes it clear to her that these prisoners “aren’t Jimmy Cagneys wrongly accused.”
But when she sees Matthew, he insists on his innocence and begs her to help him file legal papers. He tells her, “You’re all I’ve got.” She seeks out legal aid and finds a lawyer who will help Matthew with an upcoming parole hearing. The lawyer thinks it would be good for Matthew’s mother to testify in the trial.
Sister Helen goes to visit Matthew’s family and learns of the great suffering they’ve gone through on account of Matthew. His brothers are taunted at school, and his mother is shunned in the community.
Sister Helen goes to the parole hearing, which is also attended by the parents of the murdered couple, a teenaged boy and girl. The father of the murdered boy confronts Sister Helen. He tells her he’s a Catholic and asks why she hasn’t been concerned with bringing him comfort. She offers her phone number, and he responds, “Me, call you? Think about that, sister. Think about how arrogant that is.”
Helen’s parents also question Helen’s choice to minister to a convicted killer. They ask if there aren’t more “decent folk” she could be helping.
She responds, “No one else cares about him.”
Her mother says, “Your heart is large, I just don’t want to see others taking advantage of you.”
Helen continues to visit Matthew, who doesn’t always make her visits easy. He asks her about sex and whether she wants to be with a man. He makes racist statements. And he continues to proclaim his innocence, though his guilt seems certain. He makes public statements about his embracing Aryan philosophy, which leads to Sister Helen being shunned by some in her predominantly black neighborhood.
The legal process does not work in Matthew’s favor, and he is given only a week to prepare for his death by lethal injection. He asks Sister Helen to provide spiritual comfort as he faces death. She agrees to do so.
But she also goes to visit the family of the murdered girl. They assume by her kindness that she is on “their side” and seeking the death of Matthew. They kick her out of their home when they learn she is still ministering to Matthew.
Sister Helen tells Matthew that Jesus experienced what he now faces. He was condemned as a prisoner to die, and He cares for him. But she tells Matthew that to be right with God he must confess his sin. She asks him to tell about the night of the murder.
Matthew admits to killing the boy. Sister Helen asks him, "Do you take responsibility for both of their deaths? There is a place of sorrow only God can touch. You are a son of God, Matthew. No one can take that from you."
"No one's called me a son of God before,” Matthew tells her,”They've called me a son of you- know-what before, but never a son of God. Who figured I'd have to die to find love? Thank you for loving me."
Sister Helen tells Matthew he can look at her when he dies, and the love he sees on her face will be the love of Jesus. Before his execution, she assures Matthew of his redemption on the basis of Christ’s death for him. Before he dies, Matthew expresses sorrow to the parents of the murdered children.
In one of the last scenes of the film, we see Sister Helen praying in a small country church alongside the father of the murdered boy. They agree that, “Forgiveness is work. Maybe we could help each other find our way out of the hate.”
The ministry of Sister Helen as portrayed in this film, visiting the prisoner, would be enough to get this movie church our highest rating of 4 Steeples. But as a bonus we see a Sunday Service with a wonderful gospel choir singing “This is the day the Lord has made” that would make me give the film a bonus steeple, if I could.
(The film is rated R for harsh language, primarily from Matthew, and for violent images. If you're a fan of the TV show Justified, you should look for the actors who played Arlo and Mags. They do look a bit younger here.)