In her new book “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” Sister Helen Prejean chronicles her childhood as a chatty, smart, competitive daughter in a comfortably situated family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and her path to joining the Sisters of St. Joseph at age 18. It’s a thought-provoking narrative that reflects America’s shifting social mores after WWII, told with compassion and good humor. “God, save me from being a ‘do-gooder’ nun,” she writes at one point — a wisecrack that might surprise those only familiar with her as the death penalty-protesting nun who wrote “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” the 1993 bestseller subsequently adapted into a widely heralded 1995 film and a 2000 opera.
Now 80, Sister Helen recounts falling in love with a priest while remaining celibate, teaching students about love, and the tremendous changes wrought by Vatican II in the 1960s. At its core the book, which ends at the point where “Dead Man Walking” begins, is a timely story of investing words of faith with acts of meaning in the modern world, as she awakens to the genuine import of the vows and gospels to which she committed her life. Her heart finally starts to “break open” to social justice in 1980. “When I do wake up to the call of the Gospel to resist injustice and get to work in the public square, I have to call it grace,” she writes. And, later, “I have a hunch I’m going to be waking up till the moment I die.”
“I’ve been a witness, and I’ve gotta tell the story,” she explains during an interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “That’s how I titled the book, quoting St. Bonaventure: ‘Ask not about understanding, ask for the fire.’ Witnessing Pat Sonnier being electrocuted to death with fire, and how it set me on fire — I have to stay faithful to that witness of what I’ve seen. That’s like being guarded as the apple of God’s eye.”
PASADENA WEEKLY: Did you write “River of Fire” in response to some contemporary event or condition?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’ve talked with many, many groups in the conversation about the death penalty and human rights. And I began to realize more and more that religion is not well served in the kinds of conversation going on, the kind of theology that’s out there. I mean blatant things, like a woman in the senate in Wyoming; within the last five months they had a [death penalty] repeal bill up that just needed her vote and maybe one other, and she said, “No, if Jesus hadn’t been executed by the Romans, we wouldn’t be saved from our sins.” … That’s not the gospel of Jesus, to claim that you can kill people in God’s name. Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from their families at the border, claiming that because people break the law that’s against God; Justice Scalia [used] that to justify the use of the death penalty. There’s no deep understanding of the Scriptures, of the context in which they were written and what they mean. It’s very superficial proof texting — looking for text to prove a point you’ve already decided on. … Perhaps by sharing my own journey of waking up and widening my heart, to be involved in doing justice, perhaps I can be of help to others. That’s what’s behind the book.
You describe nuns as “first responders” to Vatican II’s “new outlook,” and write that you delighted in the recognition that God wants you to “make active use of intellect, imagination, and decisional power.” How do you counteract the widespread contemporary perception that religious belief is antithetical to intellectual independence?
The big banner we were all floating during the days of Vatican II was that quote from Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is humans fully alive.” So “fully alive” means you’re using your intellect, you’re using your heart, you’re engaging as agents of change in the world. … Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” and he gave his spirit over to the apostles, and it was to go out and to change the world. We partner with God in creation of the world and recreating the world. Religion has been made to be a private affair for so long; when people get engaged it’s usually something in their parish, within the confines of serving people just like [them]. When you see politicians using religion, and I’ve seen it really close up with the death penalty, they only quote scripture when they can find that proof text — scripture that agrees with what they’ve already made up their minds they’re gonna do. It’s moved away from inclusivity. It maximizes fear of the other. Listen to the language about immigrants that we hear coming out from this administration: “they’re rapists, they’re murders, they’re invading us.” It’s the same thing that happened about the death penalty. … When you begin to discern things and figure it out with your intellect, then you get engaged in being part of the change. Once you put your hand to a rope and begin to act, how freeing and liberating it can be to be part of action.
What do you see in today’s tumultuous climate with regard to social change and people of differing faiths working together to achieve common goals?
Empowering people with information and then with community organization — that’s what the 1960s brought us. Look at the young people and what they did, and look at the leadership of young people today and what they’re doing on climate change and gun violence. They’re standing up. And through social media they can organize and connect with each other. I see it as a time of tremendous possibility, and I think the midterm elections were the first shot across the bow that we’re going to be moving toward change, and I believe it’s gonna happen in the election coming up as well. People can recognize when their leaders are lying and building their own reality literally out of thin air. … What changes things? When witnesses get in there, see it, and bring you there. Elie Wiesel said that anybody who was a witness to the Holocaust had a moral imperative to tell people what they had seen. I feel that way about the death penalty.
What about mass shooters like the white nationalists who have attacked civilians and worshippers, and those who demand the death penalty for their crimes? How do you counter the hatred and the grief?
In the past 30 years, people have said these people are so morally evil, what they have done is so irredeemable, that we have to kill them. That is the language of hate and extremism. We see the rhetoric of a president who keeps affirming racist policies and attacking people, more and more and more. But human beings have intelligence! We [also] see more organizing of community around elections. We can’t just give all the power over that’s been taken over by this insensitivity and hate, and it’s so dominant that we begin to feel really powerless and hopeless. When “Dead Man Walking” came out in 1993, 80 percent of the national population believed in the death penalty; with Republicans in the Deep South, it was probably closer to 90 percent. By having all these conversations with people, crisscrossing the country, I learned some of the things that were at work. People had been made to be very afraid. They were kept from witnessing close up what was going on. … There’s a saying in Latin America: What the eye doesn’t see the heart can’t feel. I always did believe that the American people are good people with good hearts, and that they were always buying in at the circus to the death penalty because they’ve been made to be afraid. Bring them there, show them how it really works, show them how it’s completely ineffective, show them how we’re making mistakes all over the place because people are poor and they can’t have an adversarial bringing of the truth at trial — bring them there, and they get it. We’re beginning to see, across the United States, prosecutors aren’t seeking the death penalty, there are fewer and fewer death sentences.
Attorney General William Barr recently ordered the federal government to revive the death penalty. Has that energized state-level campaigns against it?
The White House has no awareness of the Constitution or how it works. They think simply by declaring “speed up these executions” that they’ll get these five people executed right away. They don’t know about the appeals that are there, and what federal defenders are doing. We have two cases from Louisiana, and I asked the federal defender here in Louisiana, “Do you think they’ll be able to kill them?” He said, “No, we’ll be able to hold it off for a long time.” … They’re going to fight that in the courts just like the Muslim ban was fought in the courts, just like “I’m not going to give green cards to people anymore” gets fought in the courts, just like “We’re going to hold children indefinitely” will be fought in the courts. I do believe with the human rights situation, with what’s been happening to children at the border, that we’re gonna be held accountable one day in an international court of law for the cruelty and torture of children. You’ve gotta know the law.
You cite Thomas Merton as a prayer model and still take retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery where he lived. He’s an interesting choice for an extrovert.
I would never make my life just solely one of contemplation without rolling up my sleeves and being active and changing the world. But it’s a good place to go to pray. You have silence, you have solitude, you can join the monks. Sometimes it’s good to get up at three in the morning and change your patterns, there in the dark, in that big abbey church, and then you have the intoning of the chant, of the Psalms, that bring you through every human condition and every emotion, with just a candle lit up front. [She sings the chant.] It’s like your soul’s so distilled, it’s like water goes into this soil where you can receive the words and the silence. It’s so good for me. So I go back every year because I need what it gives. But that’s not a life that I would undertake, simply to pray for the world.
You write about white suburban friends asking stereotypical questions about poor people you worked with in New Orleans’ St. Thomas housing project: “Why don’t they get jobs?” “Why don’t they keep their kids in school?” You answered with stories about those people. What insights has that experience given you, and how might you advise people struggling to communicate across bitter divides in 2019?
It’s what God said: Be part, in your soul, of the change you seek. Because we see, we get engaged to make change. We have a lot of sisters, religious nuns, going down to the border and being with these families. When we are engaged, we can speak out of experience to people, and you also realize that it’s not just gonna be these light little conversations back and forth that change anything. It’s gonna be people waking up to the need and getting engaged in the change, and then those kinds of conversations that come after you’ve engaged.
Vroman’s Bookstore presents Sister Helen Prejean in conversation with Rev. Mike Kinman at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena, 5-6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7; $32 (includes one book copy). Tickets available at eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-sister-helen-prejean-tickets-65970895725?aff=ebdssbdestsearch. Info: (626) 449-5320. sisterhelen.org, vromansbookstore.com