The nun whose epic book Dead Man Walking turned public opinion against state-sanctioned killing in America is calling on Americans to escape their own paralysis and “reach out” in a time of “hopelessness in our country.”
In an exclusive interview with RAW STORY, Sister Helen Prejean, the 80-year-old New Orleans nun whose 1993 book told the story of her accompanying a convicted killer to his death, fielded questions on activism, climate change and the illiberal policies of the Catholic Church.
Above all, she enjoined Americans to re-enter their communities to affect change. Prejean’s new book, River of Fire, details her conversion from a cloistered nun to an enthusiastic practitioner of her values.
“You don’t have to wait for a perfect issue,” Prejean told RAW STORY. “You reach out and start pulling on the rope, some issue, and then you see where that takes you. Maybe that’s as simple as going to a meeting. You’re not just signing petitions on the Internet, but you’re in physical contact—the physical proximity is really important.”
“Before I wrote a letter to man on death row, and then watched him be put to death, I had no interest, I had no compassion, I had no curiosity,” she said. “But once you’re motivated, you can feel that spark, that emotion, that empathy.”
“When I did that and I began to act, I got engaged in the first protest to stand with African American people who were in public housing,” she added. “When you act there’s a freedom that courses through you. There’s a life force; it’s the not acting that is the most paralyzing.”
Sister Prejean declined to judge President Donald Trump. But she did bemoan his immigration and climate change policies. “We’ve lost close to three billion birds in North America,” she said, referencing a September report in the New York Times.
The Louisiana nun hedged her opinion on Congress’ recent criminal justice reform bill, saying, “it’s a step.” She also expressed some misgivings about recent decriminalization of marijuana.
“What happened with marijuana [decriminalization] is that it began affecting the white community,” she said.
Noting that she was reading about slavery’s impact on America—specifically Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning—she said, “White privilege has made people like me think that anybody who goes to school can get a job. We do not realize the implications of four, five, six generations of poverty.”
Sister Prejean encouraged those who’d left the Catholic church to return and press for change. She used the case of gay rights as an example.
“What’s been written in the teaching is very obvious, saying that gay people are not whole, that they are not healthy, that they are defective in some way,” she said. But “too many people know people who are gay and they can’t accept they are intrinsically flawed because they know them. And that’s the way change happens.”
“It’s the people on the ground, it’s the people who get engaged in standing up for their rights that changes things… Look at the violence against gay people, look at the suicides among gay people, where did that notion come from? That’s just crazy.”
“The lived experience of the gospel is the thing that is going to change institutional teaching,” she continued. “It’s because people inside the church and out of it are having that lived experience. You just see the goodness, you see the moral goodness.”
Prejean said she wrote River of Fire “in hopes that in giving my story people will tap into that themselves, and be motivated to deal with the problems of our world and not be passive and on the sidelines.” The book traces her journey from entering the sisterhood to the date she first became a pen pal of death row inmate Elmo Sonnier.
“It’s not just about being pious, and praying, praying mainly that God solves the problems of the world… disconnecting the spiritual energy of faith from really rolling up your sleeves and getting involved,” she said. “Spiritual energy and purpose and drive is available to everybody.”
Transcript – Sister Helen Prejean Interview
Raw Story: It appears you’ve not written a book for a number of years. What prompted you to write River of Fire?
Sister Helen Prejean: It took me seven years to write. I keep seeing how religion and Christianity is used by people who cause great harm. To harming immigrants, to quoting selectively from the Bible and all. The book was about my waking up to the deepest dimensions in Christianity and to connect my faith with social justice in the world. That it’s not just about being pious, and praying, praying mainly that God solves the problems of the world… [which is ultimately] disconnecting the spiritual energy of faith from really rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. It was good to tell my story about being a nun at an early age and then waking up to social justice and then living in a city with African American people who became my teachers… The last page in River of Fire is the first page of Dead Man Walking. And it’s also written with humor and as honest as I can get. Spiritual energy and purpose and drive is available to everybody and it’s in hopes that in giving my story people will tap into that themselves, and be motivated to deal with the problems of our world and not be passive and on the sidelines.
Raw Story: In the book, you describe your journey from having values, to practicing those values—cloistered to apostolic, as you say. What advice do you have for those who struggle to find an entryway into social justice?
SHP: I’m in twelve cities on the book tour, everywhere from Miami to Seattle. It’s a time in our country where people are really feeling a hopelessness. We have such terrible things happening at our highest level of government, and terrible stuff about immigrants and people being made afraid. The more people look at the news, the more people think it’s hopeless.
One of the things to realize is that you don’t have to wait for a perfect issue. You start looking for things around you, in your own town, and join a community group. Like climate change—such a crisis what’s happening with the planet. You reach out and start pulling on the rope, some issue, and then you see where that takes you. I discovered this for myself, and I talk about it in River, that it was being on the sidelines and just saying maybe I could do this and maybe I could do that and trying to work out this strategic plan before I would get involved that was so paralyzing. For example, when I moved into the housing project and started living around African American people… I started meeting people who were working on civil rights, I met people from the ACLU who were involved with the whole death penalty issue and prison reform. We have to move out of our isolated environment and maybe that’s as simple as going to a meeting. When I did that and I began to act, when I got engaged in the first protest to stand with African American people who were in public housing … when you act there’s a freedom that courses through you, there’s a life force; it’s the not acting that is the most paralyzing. So there’s so many needs now that people, especially young people, can reach out to. There’s action for climate change, there’s penal reform, there’s working on homelessness, there’s young people in juvenile institutions… And you’re not just signing petitions on the Internet, but you’re in physical contact—the physical proximity is really important. Before I wrote a letter to man on death row, and then watched him be put to death, I had no interest, I had no compassion, I had no curiosity. But once you’re motivated you can feel that spark, that emotion, that empathy with people.
RS: A book on climate change I just finished, The Great Derangement, posits that in the wake of deadlocked government, hope may lie in a communion of activists and people of faith. Is climate change a religious issue?
SHP: Absolutely it is. The planet is our home. And if you believe in the integrity of creation—if you believe that god is in all things. I mean for people of faith. We’ve lost close to three billion birds in North America, due to the climate crisis. Some of it—that’s what I mean about getting religion right, misinterpretation of the book of Genesis that we’re to dominate the earth, so that everything is for our benefit, so we can just get the oil out of the ground, we can do fracking, we can destroy, it’s all for us. It’s all human-centered. We’re all interconnected beings and we belong to each other. There’s a very deep spiritual sense in that that connects us. When we’re individualistic selfish beings, we don’t need to take the interests of anyone into account. And that’s the opposite of what it means to be a spiritual person.
A spiritual person can feel the loss of 3 billion birds—every 20 minutes we lose another species. The more developed we become spiritually, the more we can feel things and become connected to things. My friend Sister Marya Grathwohl, OFF, is connecting Franciscan spirituality and the care of the Earth. July Fourth—she calls it Interdependence Day. We don’t need any more of this independence, we need interdependence. And of course, the first ones to suffer from climate change are poor people. If you want to believe in the goodness of creation and our part in it—that’s a holy thing. That’s holy.
RS: My mother was a federal defender in Boston, where one of her colleagues defended the Boston marathon bomber, who was sentenced to death. How do you continue your work when people actually end up getting executed? Do you think your work makes a difference?
SHP: First of all, for the privilege of being able to be with a human being who gets tortured and killed—the relationship with that person means the whole universe. The preface to River of Fire is about witnessing the man who is killed with fire, the Louisiana execution in 1984 that I witnessed, and I said that in the preface of Fire. No religious leaders protested that night, but what I saw lit my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still. I keep crisscrossing this country, trying wake up the American public who are good people—I never felt that the American people were stupid or mean, they had just not been awakened to the issues. I’m using that energy and the anger and the fire to educate the public.
RS: What do you make of the First Step Act, Congress’ and Trump’s criminal justice reform bill?
SHP: It’s a step. It’s a first step. Lately I’m reading Stamped from the Beginning, and I’m learning about slavery and its impact. That’s the language of our founders that said black people were stamped from the beginning as inferior, about how pervasive it is in our country, and we see it played out in the penal system and we see it played out in housing, in banks, the whole economic system. White privilege has made people like me think that anybody who goes to school can get a job; we do not realize the implications of four, five, six generations of poverty. And I’m just so aware of that. That’s the first step, which we need to do. We’ve based our penal system not on the reform of human beings but on imposing pain, isolation and punishment on those who have done wrong. And that’s breaking up families.
RS: Marijuana reform has prevented arrests in some states. But how do you think we should address people who’ve been incarcerated for a decade or more for something that is no longer considered a crime?
SHP: Do you know Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow?
SHP: By making drugs a felony, you can throw people in prison for drugs. But what happened with marijuana [decriminalization] is that it began affecting the white community, that’s how it happened with marijuana. So we see the reforms happening now.
And there’s just some corrupt police practices. One time, we saw a guy the police were about to throw in a police car—and this was when I lived in St Thomas, [in New Orleans]—and he yells to us, “Sisters, y’all are my witnesses, I got no drugs on me.” And so then they put him in the police car and we went down to the police station just to make sure they didn’t [plant drugs]—when you’re handcuffed and your hands are behind your back, they can just slip it in your pocket.
For a long, long time, even under [former Attorney General] Janet Reno and [President Bill] Clinton, the penalty for crack cocaine and powder cocaine was 100 times more punishment for people who did crack versus people who did cocaine, because white people did powder cocaine.
RS: What are you reading today and what books have most influenced you spiritually?
SHP: I’m reading the 1619 Project. I’m reading Stamped from the Beginning. And I’m reading some articles on Clarence Thomas and how as a black man he sided with Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and how he voted against affirmative action. I’m reading The Confessions of St. Augustine again. And I’m reading Ann Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.
RS: My grandmother says she wishes she could get through St. Augustine.
SHP: He’s in the fifth century and he’s writing in this Neoplatonic concept. [I love] the thing about oh God, I searched for you out of myself, and you were within me, and there I found you. He was one of the first authors to write about the interior life. He was the first to use the personal pronoun I.
I’ve got to give you one little quote from Ann Lamott. This is her “one good message” about understanding Christianity and about what Christ was about. “We are loved and chosen as is, fearfully and wonderfully made, with love and awe, perfect and fragile. We are lovely as sparrows, and all sparrows are sweet. No one thinks, ‘That sparrow is kind of a loser, and boy, is that one letting herself go.’” It’s on page 39 of her book.
RS: I left the church as a young gay man, in part because of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. As a progressive, how do you countenance the illiberal stances of the Church?
SHP: There’s the institutional church and there’s the gospel of Jesus. I don’t usually put a label on myself as liberal, conservative or progressive. I just say I’m a Christian and I’m just trying to follow the way of Jesus. The way is to recognize every single human being has dignity. [I learned this in my work on the death penalty.] That every human being has dignity, regardless of sex or race or sexual orientation. And the teaching up to this point, what’s been written in the teaching is very obvious, saying that gay people are not whole, that are not healthy, that they are defective in some way, but the lived experience of the gospel is the thing that is going to change institutional teaching. It happened with slavery—the death penalty, same thing. Too many people know good gay people, who are gay and they can’t accept they are intrinsically flawed because they know them. And that’s the way change happens. It’s the people on the ground, it’s the people who get engaged in standing up for their rights that changes things. I try to stand up for the gospel. Look at the violence against gay people, look at the suicides among gay people, where did that notion come from? That’s just crazy. Nothing like life experience and people living—that’s what gradually changes things. It’s because people inside the church and out of it are having that lived experience. You just see the goodness, you see the moral goodness.
RS: Thank you, Sister.
Sister Helen’s River of Fire is available at Better World Books and Amazon and is also available as an audio book. Dead Man Walking is available at Better World Books and Amazon. The film, featuring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is available for rent or purchase here.