“We never know when grace is going to hit us” says Sister Helen Prejean at the start of our interview. The sixty-seven-year old author and activist knows what she is talking about. The woman who was propelled to the forefront in the fight against the death penalty with her best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, and the 1995 movie of the same name, never really set out to be a voice for the oppressed. She admits that the extent of her exposure to, the poor for much of her early life was confined to her mother’s urging of her to include “poor people who have no place to sleep tonight” in her bedtime prayers. Her early years in the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille were spent in the classroom, teaching English and religion to junior high and high school students. Even as a nun it took some time for her to realize that following the way of Jesus meant involving herself with the lives of the poor.
By the time of our interview she had been on the road for weeks, and clearly weary from the experience of promoting her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions which was released in early 2005. Before we begin, I handed her a praline, a pecan and caramel cookie-sized confection straight from Aunt Sally’s in the French Quarter. The cellophane-wrapped sugar boost immediately worked its magic, perhaps even more so, because it was a much-needed taste of home. With her southern Louisiana drawl Sr. Helen collects herself and offers some guidance on correct pronunciation. “It’s prah-leen, just like the sound you make when you say prawn” she explains between bites of the sweet, chewy concoction.
Sister Helen Prejean and members of her religious community got out safely from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck last August, but her mid-city apartment and office were badly-damaged by rising water. She plans to return to New Orleans in April.
BustedHalo: In the early part of your career you really weren’t involved with social justice causes. When did that change?
Sr. Helen Prejean: Our sisters in the early 1980s were going through discernment and discussion and growth about where we ought to be placing our energies as religious women. I was one of those people who was dead-set against all this social justice stuff. I kept thinking, what’s with all this social justice? Jesus said the poor you’ll always have with you. I wasn’t going to change the way the world is, some people are rich, and some people are poor. If the poor accept their fate from God and unite themselves with the suffering Jesus on the cross, they’re going to get to heaven someday; in fact, their place in heaven will probably be higher than ours. If the poor have God, they have everything. The whole thing for me was to live the spiritual life. We were nuns, not social workers.
But we never know when we’re going to get enlightened and get knocked off our horse like St. Paul. It happened for me in Terre Haute, Indiana in June 1980. I went to a conference with Sister Marie Augusta Neal, a sociologist who had come to talk with our sisters. She said Jesus preached good news to the poor and integral to the good news He preached was that they would be poor no longer. Suddenly, in a flash, the whole gospel opened for me: Jesus wasn’t a dreamy preacher who just gathered people on a hillside and sang beautiful songs together about God’s love. But, he inaugurated a new kind of community which ended up threatening everybody — threatened the Romans, threatened the religious leaders of His time — because everybody was treated with dignity.
From this awakening, the whole spiritual trajectory of my life changed. I moved from the lakefront where I had been living and moved to the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans, among the African American families struggling against poverty and racism. I was in this soil, in this environment, coming out of the Adult Learning Center one day on St. Andrews Street when a friend of mine from the Prison Coalition bumped into me. He said, “Hey, Sister Helen, do you want to write somebody on death row here in Louisiana?” I said, “Sure, I could do that, I could write letters.” That was in 1982, we hadn’t executed anybody in Louisiana since the 1960s. I never dreamed they were going to kill this guy, much less that two-and-a-half years later I would visit with Patrick Sonnier face-to-face. And on the night of April 5, 1984, I would walk with (Patrick) as his spiritual advisor to the electric chair, and tell him to look at my face and I would be the face of Christ for him.
BH: It takes a strong person to say those words to a condemned man.
HP: Grace unfurls under us as we need it. Our sisters have a spiritual maxim: Never leap ahead of grace. Being in the death house with Pat, in the last three days before he was taken and killed, I realized that if I projected ahead to what was going to happen, I would begin to fall apart. But, if I stayed in the present with him, the two us together, with him helping me as well, that gave me strength and focus. It roots you in God, in a way that I had never experienced in my life before. When I watched as the state of Louisiana killed him in the electric chair, and he had sought my face as the last face before he died, it brought me to the women at the foot of the cross, my being there for him. Granted, this man has done a terrible, unspeakable crime, but at the same time, he is also human and has a dignity that should not be taken from him. As I said later in the presence of Pope John Paul, the essence of the gospel of Jesus is revealed at a moment like this.
The essence of the gospel becomes very clear, the words of Jesus that came to me, as I accompanied this man to the execution… the last will be first… and prostitutes and sinners are getting into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of you.
BH: Since then, you’ve accompanied six men to execution, but you say the shock remains the same every time.
HP: Who can witness the deliberate protocol of death of an alive human being, who is then walked into another room and killed, and you watch? I’m talking to that person, just like I’m talking to you, but you know in a moment, he’ll be led to his death. It’s the same seismic effect because it’s the death of a human being, and it’s a useless death. It comes out of injustice, it shouldn’t have happened. And you have to be present to them. I’m not a witness for the state, I make that very clear. I’m there so that the person can see my face. Human beings at the end, most of them, their last words are words of love. They become loving beings. Therein lies the tragedy in America. When someone has committed a terrible crime, it’s as if we freeze-frame them in that act, and then we freeze-frame ourselves in saying it’s the law, that’s why they have to die. The gospel of Jesus is exactly the opposite of that, human life is always open-ended, it can be restored and is redeemable. That is the essence of the message of Jesus and the death penalty thwarts that by taking on the arrogance of deciding when a human being should end his or her earthly life to meet God.
BH: How did these experiences shape your mission?
HP: It’s been like another baptism for me these six times, because what do you do when you walk away from having witnessed something like this? My own mission was borne out of [Patrick Sonnier’s] execution. I literally vomited shortly after coming out of the execution chamber. It was the middle of the night, everyone was asleep, and across Louisiana, the polls were saying the people thought capital punishment was a great idea. I thought to myself,’They are never going to see this. They will never be brought close to this. I’m the witness.'”
So I became the witness that night and began to tell the story. I’ve got to bring people close. I’m the witness, just like in the Epistle of John, “what we have seen and heard. And felt with our hands, this is the gospel, I proclaim to you.” I became the witness that night and began to tell the story. It’s what led me to the book. It what leads me to get on airplanes, to speak in universities, schools, churches, synagogues, civic groups. I’m the witness, I gotta tell the story, I gotta bring people close. The gospel of Jesus and conversion of heart doesn’t happen, for the most part, simply by the hierarchy of the church proclaiming, “Hey, there’s been a change in the teaching on the death penalty.” That’s not the conversion journey of what it means to follow the gospel. There has to be a change of heart and you have to arrive at that change of heart by bringing people through their own emotions.