Sr. Helen Prejean "Becoming an Activist" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello. I’m Karen Pascal. I’m Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen and remind each listener as Henri would that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest on this podcast. I have the pleasure of interviewing Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen is well-known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. I first met Sister Helen through the film based on her bestselling book titled “Dead Man Walking” in the United States. Sister Helen has been instrumental in sparking a national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping the Catholic Church’s vigorous opposition to all executions. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Helen joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957. In her memoir “River of Fire” she tells the story of her journey from childhood faith, to becoming a nun, to the commitment today to be a force for social transformation. Sister Helen, I have loved your book; it’s funny, it’s honest. And it’s very challenging. Years ago, I did a documentary series called “Stories of our Becoming” where I interviewed a variety of people and they told me the stories of their childhood and of their lives and what shapes them. This book “River of Fire” is really the story of your becoming. Why did you call it River of Fire?
Sr. Helen: Well, the river part is because life is always moving. We’re always in motion. And then, the fire part is to catch on fire with passion, love of the gospel. And so I began the book with an epigraph from St. Bonaventure, “ask not for understanding, ask for the fire”. And so the whole story is about my awakening to justice because the gospel unfolds inside of us you know. And so starting a childhood in a Catholic family, becoming a nun in 1957 before Vatican II, and then the river moves Vatican II to happen. Things opened up. And then it was my struggle to understand that the gospel of Jesus was more than just about being charitable to people around me and praying for the people of the world who were suffering, but to engage in justice. The paperback version has as the subtitle “On becoming an Activist”- of actually participating in history and not just being a bystander and watching it go by.
Karen: That does really explain to people as they’re thinking about this, about this journey. I found it absolutely delightful. I loved your honesty. You were obviously a well-loved child, competent, vibrant. In the eighth grade, I mean, you told everybody you wanted to become the Pope or the President of the United States. I loved the outrageous nature I get there.
Sr. Helen: Right. And you know, that comes from being loved. I mean, it’s when I’ve been in the presence of people – now a lot of them in prison or in other places where they had such an abused childhood – I just realized that it really humbled me because I tried to be a loving person, but I’ve received so much, Karen. I just received so much. And so it’s just to let it flow through you again, the river image of the love. Because you know, if you’re going to stand up in front of your eighth grade class and announce in a chirpy little voice “Look, y’all, I’m either going to be the President or the Pope.” Uh, what gives with that kid?
Karen: I just thought it was delightful. Why did you decide to become a nun? I mean, this was kind of interesting. Was that just the natural thing? You were Catholic and you had a deep childhood faith. Was it that that would open that door for you?
Sr. Helen: Well, it was – Okay, this was the fifties. You know the whole cultural mindset of the fifties as a Catholic, you did one of two things: you either married and that was what most people did. You know, my classmates at St. Joseph academy in Baton Rouge were talking about going to LSU, (Louisiana State University) for husbandry… that’s where they got married. Everybody got married or the only other possibility that was considered real for your life was to be a nun. And we had great nuns. I mean, they were alive. They were… they had stayed; they had humor. They challenged our minds and taught us to think. And I mean, I love them and I wanted it. I knew I always wanted to be a teacher and so this was going to be a way. I thought, what could be better than that? And to be able to develop your spiritual life; I knew I would be able as a nun to go on retreats, to be able to learn to pray, to develop my spiritual life and I’d be given time for that and you know, it’s really been borne out in my life and I made a good choice – or it chose me.
My sister got married within seven years. She had five children. It was a way of the fifties. As you married, you had children, you were a housewife. I would’ve made a terrible mother. I think…, I don’t know if I put this in the book, but I’m kind of blasé. I’ve got goodwill, I’ve got a big heart, but you know, I’d be coming home from the grocery store, putting my kid on top of the car and the little stroller thing and I’d drive off and I’d be on the 10 o’clock news about my child. I mean, I have goodwill, but I think I would’ve made a terrible mother. But my sister did that, everybody was doing that. Except I wanted this life. I wanted the spiritual life and I wanted to teach and you know that has happened! It’s like my classroom – just with “Dead Man Walking” and working on the death penalty and going out and talking to the people – my classroom just got big and that’s all. I mean, you’re sharing with people, I am bringing them into the story to help them deal with this issue – you know, the death penalty.
Karen: Well, I have to tell you, honestly, one of the things I enjoyed about the book was the insight into what it was like to become a nun in 1957. You obviously grew through a very interesting time period. I mean, it almost seemed like they were trying to remove all your individuality. That was what it appeared to be. Tell us about those early days. And then we’ll have to see a little bit of your perspective of Vatican II and the impact that that had.
Sr. Helen: Sure. You know, in fact, I did this sociological description of what it meant to be a nun in the fifties. You know, first of all, you are wearing a medieval garb or right after the middle ages. I had like five pieces of cloth on my head. We were covered from head to toe in a habit. And then I was never going to have to make another decision in my life. It would all be made for me because the spiritual ideal was to blind obedience. You obey whatever the superior tells you to do, and that is the holy role of God for you. And so I’d never make another decision. I’d give my life over in the life of obedience. And it was a semi-cloistered life actually. We would go to teach in the school, but nuns never ate with the lay teachers. We had our own dining room, we had own bathroom and then, you know, people could visit us in the parlor, but they could never come into the cloistered part. And then Vatican II happened and Vatican II is just explosive and just opened up, especially for us as nuns, to the world. It opened up the whole church. It’s the only Ecumenical council that the Catholic Church ever had where its sole purpose was not to condemn some heresy, but to just look at our life and see how we could connect the gospel of Jesus to what was actually happening in the modern world in a way that was more meaningful. And nowhere did that apply more than to our lives. And so we in the life as a nun before Vatican II – It was this thing of praying and doing penance for the world but now it became, what’s going on in the world. You know, the documents – we were reading the documents as soon as they were coming out of Vatican II -of the church in the world and being there with the joys and sufferings of the people and connecting. And, we just blossomed, our community. Vatican II happened from ’62 to ’65 and nobody took it more seriously than the nuns. Our community, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Louisiana , we took every one of the mandates of Vatican II and had already translated it into a new Rule, a new way of living by 1968. So one huge thing that changed was this whole thing of, Can it be as simple as knowing the will of God just simply by obeying an authority? Well, what about the Spirit that has been given to each of us to discern maybe where God is calling us and what it is we’re called to do?
And so there was just a real change in the community. And we began to make decisions by consensus and not just coming from on high. So the whole church has been called to do that. Bishops were to meet together to form decisions by consensus and not just get directives from Rome. And the church was redefined as the People of God. Most people, you can still hear them today when they get mad they say, I’m so mad at the church, but what they mean is they’re mad at some Bishop or somebody in the hierarchy or priest or something. But Vatican II said no, no, the church is the people, and you know, I have witnessed, Karen, this dialogue with my church on the death penalty. It truly is the people who have the experiences on the ground they are the ones that go into the death chambers and then to the prisons, then share those experiences and dialogue and it bubbles up and it bubbles up and it bubbles up.
And then you have change because, for example, in August 2019, you had Pope Francis declare and change the catechism. For a long, long time, for 1500 years, you had the church upholding the right of the State to take life, but then you have all these experiences that happen. And then you have reflection on this dialogue and you have an unfolding of understanding and to reach a point in 2018 where the church could say officially, under no circumstances, no matter how grievous the crime, the state cannot be given that right to take life. That is always a sign of dialogue. And the people are the ones who do the dialogue. And I was in there, many others were in there too, but that’s an example of what Vatican II unleashed because of the Spirit in the people, the people share their experiences and we change.
Karen: I have to tell you, something I loved about your book was you took me through that journey. And I wasn’t anticipating that this would be the case, but it was such help. It was helpful for me. It brought understanding. And interestingly enough, this book River of Fire brings us right up to the point where Dead Man Walking comes into your life. It’s kind of your life journey up to that point. But you also, in such an interesting way, take us on this journey of how your world opened up, how your focus changed. You were somebody with a depth of spirituality. And clearly you mentioned that, with Vatican II, it called you back to Jesus. But I also saw there something of a change.
Sr. Helen: It called me to understand Jesus in a new way, but you know, in religion often this can happen as a private kind of thing. Somebody individually feels close to God, but it was that connection with justice. And I resisted that at first because I was doing retreats. And, you know, I said, look, we’re nuns we’re not social workers; all of this justice stuff and getting involved with the poor, social change. You know, that was not an automatic thing for me, but I began dialogue within the community, we had these real spirited dialogues. And so we had like two camps. I was in the “spiritual” camp. And then you had the other “social justice” camp of getting out there, getting involved with the issues of poverty, race and the whole civil rights movement. And so then I talk about that moment.
Grace wakes us up and there’s a subtheme that just goes through the whole book about awakening. And it’s called the lightening chapter and we had this great nun. Her name is Marie Augustin Neal. She’s a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. For 4 years she had taught at Boston College. She had taught the New Testament and Sociology. So her feet were on the ground, she knew what was happening with people because of the sociology. And we had her for three days talking to us about the challenge of the gospel and justice. So I wasn’t too happy about this. We had to go to this place in Terre Haute, you know, St. Mary in the Woods; the girls were away for the summer. We were in the dorm and I was kind of grousing all the way on the bus going up. And then we got three days of the social justice stuff, trying to get us to be social revolutionaries. And we’re nuns that teach people about God, then they have everything they need. And I’m apolitical. I’m not getting involved with all this political stuff, you know, and then I come home. And that’s how grace happened. And I talk about her, talk about her talk about Jesus. I can tell you the line and I put it in the book. And then she said, “Jesus preached good news to the poor.” And I thought, I knew what was coming next. Yeah. Yeah. Good news to the poor. Every hair of your head is numbered. God loves us more than sparrows in the sky. And you may have to suffer as a poor person now, but one day your reward will be great in heaven.
And she said, “The good news to people who are poor, the good news is it’s not God’s will for you to be poor. It’s your right, it’s your dignity as a person to strive for what is rightfully yours: to resist poverty, to resist injustice.” And she said those words. I sat there. I didn’t move physically. I just, I have never raised my hand to join in any kind of movement to help people struggling against injustice. And I came from that conference back to New Orleans, started getting on a bus and volunteering in the inner city at 10 major housing projects in New Orleans where struggling African-American people live. And I was out in the suburbs. I had never been to any of them, but the first step then was to go to where the people were and then it opened up step by step. And I had grown up. It’s very interesting, because this is a time when there’s an awakening, I believe going on in the country about systemic racism and the death of George Floyd has really opened that up for us in a whole new way.
Then I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects, having grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the forties, mostly the forties and fifties and black people were our servants. They lived on the premises with us in a place called the servant’s quarters behind our big two-story house. And there’s my daddy; he’s a successful lawyer in Baton Rouge. And here we are a white family. I’m going to a private Catholic school and Ellen and Jesse … Ellen worked in the house with mom and Jesse worked in the yard and I didn’t even know their last names – and they lived in the servant’s quarters and they didn’t eat with us and they had their own toilet and I never ever questioned that. And things unfolded to me, and now I’m volunteering at this place called Hope House in New Orleans. And now for the first time I’m meeting African-American people as my peers, as my neighbors, and they teach me. I had never even heard the word white privilege. I didn’t know ‘privileged’, simply black and white. And here I’m having all these experiences of what it means to try to survive on a meagre welfare check and what it means to have a sick child.
I went with Geraldine one night to a charity hospital. Her little son – three-year-old son- was sick, burning up with a fever. She didn’t have a doctor. She had to go and sit. And I sat with her. We went at 11 o’clock at night, holding her little fevered child till three in the morning. And finally an intern, some tired intern from LSU or Tulane medical school, saw her and her child. And it just brought home to me how, oh, it just, it galvanizes you inside. It sets you on fire because you see the suffering and how important healthcare is.
And I was remembering when my little brother, Louis, got sick with double pneumonia and mama had been a nurse in the Lady of the Lake Hospital and knew the doctors and Louis got the best healthcare and it saved his life. And yet when you have a sick child and you don’t have health care… And just everywhere I looked: the way the police would treat the young men. People coming into the adult learning center where I prized education so much; teaching and learning so much. And here’s a kid coming in to get his GED and he had been in a public school, one of the public schools in New Orleans. And I said, well how far did you get in school before you dropped out? And he said, well, I was a junior. I go, well look, you only have one more year to go. So let’s see where your reading level is and math. And the kid could not read a third grade reader. He was a junior and it just struck me. What’s going to happen to this black kid who even if he had gone on another year, probably didn’t have a functional reading level? What’s going to happen to him? And it just threw me back on the privilege of my life. Why did I get such a good education you know?
So it was just happening every which way. And I also began to learn about human rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I’m beginning to meet lawyers that are going into the prison and representing poor people. And then all of that tilled the soil and that last page of River of Fire is the first page of Dead Man Walking. And now I’m coming out of Hope House one day, meet a friend who worked in the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons who had a little project going on and said, “Hey Sister, Helen you want to be a pen pal to somebody on death row?” And I said sure.
Karen: That was the start? Oh my goodness what a start! Your book is full of honesty, full of the journey, that we can be so blind to how fortunate we have been. And then that journey of, I love where you say, “I’m taking a fresh look at the American dream and who gets to live it and who doesn’t”. And it’s not just an American dream, it’s a Western dream. I would say it exists here in Canada. It exists around the world, but it’s a very important thing for us to look at that and understand it. There was an old movie – I don’t know whether you ever saw it – it was called Educating Rita. And I often think about that movie about that coming of age movie for somebody who was already an adult. And I wondered about who educated you in the issues of social justice. Clearly this nun really called you forward, but it sounds to me like some of your education was really coming from the streets and from the people that were becoming your friends.
Sr. Helen: Oh yeah. Well, once I moved, you know, feet, really River of Fire is about breaking out of two bubbles. And I just want to say the goodness of people including myself – when we’re in a bubble is just – we really don’t know. It’s not that we are bad people, we deliberately and malicious like ignoring people, are not getting involved. We just really don’t know. And we … that’s why I say grace wakes us up. My two bubbles I had to break out of were – one was the spirituality that really thought what I needed to do about all the big problems in the world is simply to pray and to ask God to help the people, because these problems are too big. And, you know, I had to break out of that. And then the other one was I had to break out of the suburbs and living this white American, you know, privileged life, separated from people in my own city, partly out of fear because those are the people you’d see on the 10 o’clock news at night.
And in this fear of black people, they’re always the ones doing the crime. Look there, they are putting the handcuffs on another black person and putting them in a police car. And that fear when you’re separated. So that’s waking up – that Jesus was going to be on the side of people struggling for justice. And I hadn’t been anywhere near that; that integral to following the way of Jesus was to get involved. And it was leaving the suburbs and going to live among the people that the education happened. And what happens to you is, it’s the scene of the suffering. That’s what really lights the fire of passion, because that’s wrong. What if my mama was holding Louis and didn’t get a doctor even to look at him till three o’clock in the morning. I mean, you make the connection. This is me, this is us. And I can’t walk away from it neutrally. I can’t just say I’m neutral.
And then that whole thing of the political and Marie Augusta Neal. One of the whammies that she got to me, was like she almost knew what I was thinking. And then when you look at the injustices of the world and you say, well, I’m apolitical and you don’t get involved in any way – you are really supporting the status quo, which is a very political stance to take. So you can’t live in a democratic society and just say you ain’t political because then you’re just upholding whatever it is. I’ve thought of that many, many times coming out of an execution chamber – that the people are asleep. They’re not awake about the death penalty because they’re not out there resisting, but that doesn’t mean people are bad. It means they’re not awake, but you can’t say you’re apolitical. You just can’t. Well, you can say it, but just recognize that if we’re not engaged in working to help our society to become better, to become a participant in the change, we’re contributing to the problem, we’re part of the problem.
Karen: Can I ask you…I’m thinking of our audience right now. I’m thinking of myself as well. Where do you put your foot in? Just where do you begin? It’s very important Christians become a force for social transformation. It’s important. And this book – I loved the fact that you were honest about what route it took you. I love the journey, I learned from it, but your honesty was infectious to me. And I would just say, okay, you’re now talking to all of us, tell us where do we step in if we’ve not been, if we bought into that idea that I’m apolitical or whatever, you know, where do you begin?
Sr. Helen: Yes, it begins in your prayer and your meditation, about that stirring in your own heart of really what you want to do with your life. And when we’re not doing enough, when we, you know, we’re bumping along. Okay, we’re doing some nice things, but there’s that restlessness we have to listen to. I was made to do something. And then you, you can pull, put your hand on a rope anywhere. You can get involved with children or tutoring children, but it always entails that we’re going to have to get out of our comfort zone in some way. We’ve got to take a journey of some kind physically, to go somewhere, to go to that meeting on climate change, to go, to get involved with black lives matter, to get involved in some way, because we can’t do it without community. Just look around you in your city where you are, who’s doing something and get in there and go physically, go visit them, talk to them and see how you might get engaged, how you might get involved.
Nobody can do that for you… hand you, okay, here’s your little list here, here are the places you go. There’s a certain amount of searching that always has to go on when we find our way to do justice in the world and we got to do that. So we got to read and we got to go there and you might try it out and it’s not for you, but you gotta go there and you gotta try and get involved in some way. And you know, I have found hope is an active verb, that you can’t just want to have hope. It’s when we get engaged, however small the action and in the getting involved hope then just courses through us. It happens to us. We don’t have to wish for it. And so that’s, that’s what I say. And I get asked that question all the time.
Because I do a lot of talking in university groups, high schools, to young people. And, and I say to young people, never let anybody tell you that simply because you’re a young person, you don’t have great power in you to change the world. You look at the young people leading on climate change. Look at that Greta Thunberg, 14 years old and sitting in front of the Swedish parliament on a Friday morning, because she had that fire in her heart – that our planet – we’re losing it and we have to wake up. And look at the students also at Parkland at the high school where the shooters had come, about gun violence, any place is a good place to begin.
Karen: Well, I’m inspired. I want to tell our listeners that they must come to our conference because you share vividly and richly in the conference. That’s our June conference. It’s called Henri Nouwen and The Art of Living. And one of our keynote speakers is Sister Helen Prejean and it is such a treat. So I do encourage you. There’ll be links to this on our website.
Sr. Helen: I got to tell you this about him right now. You know, one of the great things he says is you can’t think your way into a new way of living. You gotta live your way into a new way of thinking, which means you don’t work out all your little blueprint of what you’re going to do. You get in there and you get involved. The path is made by walking. You know, you get into the river, you get into the current and then it’s going to take you there. And that was a Nouwen thing. You know I first met him, well, I’m going to tell this story at the conference how I first met Henri Nouwen at Notre Dame. So I’ll let people be part of the conference to hear that story. At first I felt very sorry for him, I said the poor man he has a kinda lisp or something. I felt sorry for him. And then I heard his homily. I went, oh my God, who is that guy? And someone said, well, that’s Henri Nouwen. And that began my adventure with him.
Karen: Well, you have many adventures going on, but I love your faithfulness to what you do. And I know that you’re an advocate for people on death row. And I know that you continue to accompany people. In fact, today, just before doing this podcast with me, you were on the phone with somebody on death row that you speak with regularly. Tell me a little bit about that. Tell me about that journey of that accompanying.
Sr. Helen: Oh my God. His name is Manuel Ortiz. He is going on 29 years on Louisiana’s death row and he is innocent. Out of the seven people I have accompanied he’s the third innocent one. It is so broken. My second book is called The Death of Innocence. And so when people go to trial for their lives even, and you just see all the things that happened to Manuel, I mean, he actually had a district attorney that went for the death sentence for him, and then afterwards represented the victim’s family to get the insurance money. I mean there’s just so many corrupt things in the criminal justice system. And this man has suffered so much and he is so brave and going on 29 years! And now he’s in a federal court on appeal and we were hoping that the very first federal judge to look at it could see all the things that were unfair that happened in his trial and the judge didn’t see it. And so now he’s waiting and waiting and waiting. And he’s a lovely man. I call him my Nelson Mandela because of his suffering and because he’s innocent. And then COVID has happened and I haven’t been able to visit with him. That’s really been hard. So every week we set up this phone call, he didn’t have email. And so that’s who we’re talking about with that phone call. That happens at one o’clock on every Wednesday.
Karen: That is faithfulness. That is journeying. You know, that’s feet on the road. You’re not just writing books, you’re living them. And I love that. And I want to say to people, I hope you will get this book. It is honestly a wonderful book, a terrific insight into this journey of the last 70 years. It is insight into the awakening of Sister Helen Prejean, who’s honest enough to say where she was in her thinking and what brought her alive in her thinking as a Christian, as a Christ follower, as somebody who has an entirely different attitude about the poor and about the needs of the world that are out there and she can be a part of. I thank you, Sister Helen and I really want to encourage everyone please sign up for our conference. You would be missing out if you don’t get a chance to come to this. We’ll make it available to anyone who wants to come. You can go to our website and we would be so glad to have you come. It’s the Anniversary conference because it’s 25 years since Henri died. So this is a very important conference and a wonderful gathering of people. I would just encourage everyone and they’re in for a treat. Sister Helen, you delivered big time. It was great. Thank you so much for your time.
Sr. Helen: Thank you for doing this. I love talking to you, Karen.
Karen: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope this conversation with Sister Helen Prejean has ignited a fire in you. I want to invite you to join us for our upcoming conference called Henri Nouwen and The Art of Living. Sister Helen is one of our keynote speakers and you won’t want to miss her. We also have a wonderful lineup of other speakers, Dr. Vanessa White, Dr. Roberto Goizueta, Sister Simone Campbell, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Marjorie Thompson, and Chris Pritchett. There’ll be links on our website so you could register for this important 25th anniversary celebration we’re holding online on June 4th and 5th. I do hope you’ll join us. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You will find links to anything mentioned today: book suggestions, links to sign up for the conference or to sign up to receive our free daily Henri Nouwen meditations. Thanks for listening until next time.
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