Sr. Helen Prejean Reveals What Set Her ‘Soul on Fire’ and Changed Her Life’s Path
Sister Helen Prejean is one of the most recognized and respected voices for the abolition of the death penalty. Best known as the author of the New York Times best-selling book “Dead Man Walking,” Sr. Helen has ministered to death row inmates and accompanied six men to execution. She founded several organizations to end the death penalty for the protection and healing of victims’ families.
Her latest book, “River of Fire,” a prequel to “Dead Man Walking,” is an intimate memoir of her childhood, her spiritual evolution and how her soul was “lit” to her crusade.
We recently spoke with Sr. Helen about her path to faith and advocacy.
1. What was it about your relationship with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer from “Dead Man Walking,” that touched you so much, prompted you to write a book, and ultimately form the Ministry Against Death Penalty?
When I first got an invitation to write letters to Patrick Sonnier on Louisiana’s death row, I thought that all I was going to be doing would be to write a few letters. I never dreamed that two-and-a-half years later, he would be executed in the electric chair and I would be there with him, saying: look at my face, look at me, I will be the face of Christ for you, and that experience would set me on fire to abolish the death penalty for the rest of my life.
That’s what fire symbolizes in the title of “River of Fire.” The Preface goes like this:
They killed a man with fire one night.
They strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity through his body until he was dead.
His killing was a legal act. No religious leaders protested the killing that night,
But I was there, I saw it with my own eyes, And what I saw set my soul on fire, A fire that burns in me still.
Until I made my way to death row, as a Catholic nun, I knew only about teaching young people English and religious studies, directing Bible studies for adults in a Catholic parish, and conducting prayer services. My prayer life then was all about asking God to relieve the suffering of people around the world and to set right the many injustices I saw. Actually trying to be in the world and fix the problems myself was too big for me. That was God’s work, I told myself. It took me until my forties to realize that the following of Christ means siding with the voiceless ones on the margins of life, then rolling up my sleeves to engage with them in resisting injustice. There’s a saying from Latin America: “what the eye does not see, the heart cannot feel.”
Wrapped in privilege, community, and education; safe in the suburbs of New Orleans, I was oblivious to the life and death struggle of impoverished African Americans, until God’s grace woke me up. That’s the story “River of Fire” tells: how I woke up and how it led me to leave my white suburban neighborhood and move to a place called Hope House to serve African American families in the St. Thomas Projects. Growing up, the only way I knew African Americans in segregated Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was as our family servants: Ellen in the house with mama; Jesse, the yardman. I never knew their last names. There were separate toilets, separate meals in the kitchen, separate housing in the small, wooden “Servants’ Quarters,” located behind our big, two-story house.
Okay, now, for a change, I get to serve poor people. It wasn’t charity. It was justice.
And it was that move into the roiling heart of life and death among my impoverished neighbors and meeting lawyers, social workers, and human rights activists joining up with neighborhood residents in their fierce struggles that said to me, “Hey, Helen, you can do that.” Living there opened my heart and made me receptive to invitations I otherwise would never have considered. So, when I was invited to be a pen pal to a man on death row, I said sure. I wrote to Patrick Sonnier, and he wrote back. I soon learned from his letters that no one ever came to visit him. He didn’t ask me to come, I offered and drove two-and-a-half hours to Angola, scared out of my mind of him at first (I had never visited at close range with a murderer before), and of the guards, and the cruelty of the place, embodied in the bright red letters painted over the door of the tier: Death Row.
But there it was, right from the beginning, what connected us, sealed us. I saw it when I first looked into his eyes through a steel, mesh screen: My God, he’s a human being.
My boat was on the current, riding into the horror of the murders of the two teenage kids Patrick and his brother, Eddie, had shot in the back of their heads at close range. And then–my mistake–that at first, I didn’t reach out to the victims’ families (it was cowardice, I was afraid that in fierce anger and grief they might hurt me), then repenting, reaching out, and learning incredible life lessons from them. Lessons I am still learning.
2. Your new book “River of Fire” is considered a prequel to “Dead Man Walking.” How did your childhood and early adulthood shape your future as an activist and a nun?
“River of Fire” is the prequel to “Dead Man Walking.” It traces my spiritual journey of awakening to the radical Gospel call of Jesus, beckoning me past simply feeling sorry for suffering people. Only full-tilt engagement in the daily hard work of reforming unjust systems will do. And, Lordie, do we have our work cut out for us in this divided, partisan not-very-United States of America, in which the rich get richer and poor people go to prison, especially citizens of color. Until I worked in St. Thomas, I had never heard the term white privilege. I encourage you to read, study, meditate, memorize the 1619 Project and Ibram Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning.”
3. What are your sentiments about women’s role in the Catholic Church?
Look, it’s taken (take a breath) 1600 years of dialogue for the Church to finally declare, on August 2, 2018, that the death penalty can never be imposed by governments under any circumstances. I’ve had a part of that dialogue for 35 years, mostly talking to the People, whom the Second Vatican Council (the Catholic equivalent of the Protestant Reformation) proclaimed the People of God–the essential heart of the Church–in its seismic pronouncements of 1962-65.
So, here’s how I see it about dialogue: it’s the people awakening, getting educated on a subject, the people, rising to consciousness that gradually transforms the moral consciousness of the Church. Coming out of the killing chamber in the early morning hours of April 5, 1984, having just witnessed the deliberate killing of a human person rendered defenseless, I began my dialogue with the nation and my church about the cruelty and indignity of government killings.
It’s going to be the same in the dialogue about women in the Catholic Church. As I told Pope Francis on the death penalty: I have preached in Protestant churches, and synagogues, and the U.N., and state legislatures all over this nation, but simply because I’m a woman, I am not allowed to preach on Sunday in my own Catholic Church or even to read, to proclaim the Gospel out loud at Mass. This discrimination has a name, sexism, and the whole world knows it. We must deal with it head-on to be faithful to the Gospel of Christ. In [a letter I wrote to Pope Francis], I hope to persuade the Pope/People of the Church that until women are an integral part of policymaking and moral decision-making in the Catholic Church, we will never be whole as a moral body.
Without women’s wisdom and practical experience at the table, all-male decision-makers will always have a limited and distorted view. It’s not healthy for the Church to allow only males to exclusively interpret the Gospel message for our times. We are learning that no societal group–Congress, the U.N, the Catholic Church–can be whole without the full participation of women. The Church needs women preaching, needs women leading us in prayer, needs women’s experience to make sound, moral decisions for justice and equality.
What does it mean, really, in the real world, to say that, despite baptism, only males can “fully image Christ, who happened to be a man.” Get ready for the long, long haul of dialogue until the truth emerges. In the end, as dialogue prevails, truth will emerge for the full dignity of women as it has for the inhumanity of the death penalty and slavery and so many other social issues, once based on ignorance, prejudice, and fear–the very opposite of the liberating Gospel of Jesus. [Beautiful!]
4. What do you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
When my publisher asked me what I hoped “River of Fire” might do for readers, I wrote this: “I’m especially keen to share how spiritual energy focused on human problems, gives staying power and the blazing imagination we need to engage over the long slog to transform our society. The power in my journey might be that it can accompany readers, step by step, from a private, uninvolved, apolitical life to one of intense social engagement to address prejudice, racism, and injustice in our so-called “land of the free and home of the brave.”