Dead Man Walking: Sister Helen Prejean on Grace, Justice, and Death Row
Sister Helen Prejean tells her story of how grace awakened her to be a champion of justice. A Catholic nun who befriended a death row inmate and witnessed his execution, Sr. Helen brings us into her mission of standing with people on the margins and loving the “unlovable”. Author of, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty (which became a 1996 award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), Sr. Helen has devoted her life’s work to advocating for the abolishment of government sponsored-killing. Listen to her account of love, forgiveness, and being the face of Christ in the world.
In this episode, we interview Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, on her work in advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty in the United States. Sr. Helen talks about grace, justice, life, and death.
- 0:00—Podcast Intro
- 3:20—Interview begins
- 3:48—How Sr. Helen became a Catholic nun
- 4:40—Sr. Helen’s “awakening” and realizing the connection between the Gospel and justice for those who suffer
- 7:25—Education and theology as an allurement away from Jesus’ call
- 8:57—Movie Dead Man Walking
- 10:15—Watching vs. witnessing executions
- 12:52—The people who do the killing and the question of moral injury
- 13:2—Justice for victim’s families
- 16:23—Pat Sonnier and Lloyd Lablanc in Dead Man Walking, and what happens to the victims’ families
- 21:27—Native American proverb “The one who seeks to go on journey of revenge should dig two graves”
- 23:37—What is Christian humility?
- 25:35—Prisoners and death row inmates’ experience/suffering
- 28:22—Albert Camus essay, Reflections on the Guillotine
- 29:09— Responding to criticism and humanizing the perpetrators, human dignity
- 31:19—Sr. Helen’s book The Death of Innocents and reference to Jimmy Glass poem, the Earthen Vessel
- 31:29—Sr. Helen reads poem
- 34:28—“Waking up the people” and ending the cycle of death
- 37:40—Slavery, discrimination and how culture is blinding
- 38:47—”Angola Prison”, the Louisiana State Penitentiary
- 39:17—Clip from Dead Man Walking: conversation between Pat and Sister Helen just prior to Pat’s execution
- 40:37—Discussion of quote “I want the last thing in the world you see to be the face of love”
- 43:28—What is the face of love today?
- 45:02—End interview, credits
Quotes from Sr. Helen
- “It wasn’t enough to pray for God to help the poor. I had to roll up my sleeves and get involved. I’m still grateful that I woke up. It was grace that woke me up in a big way.”
- “I remember thinking very clearly to myself, ‘The people are never going to see this close up. They’re going to hear about it. They’re going to hear about the crime. They’re going to say justice was done, but I’ve been a witness. I’ve got to tell the story and bring people close.’”
- “Is violence redemptive? All we have to do is imitate the violence he did?”
- “Where the moral failure is, is to identify a human person completely with an action. Everybody is worth more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. That’s human transcendence. God’s made us that way.”
- “The face of love is that when we see injustice, and when we see hurt, and when we see suffering, we do not turn away and say, ‘Well, I’m neutral.’”
- “When we’re called to leave this little ego-centered thing of our lives, to pour ourselves out in something bigger than ourselves, to help justice come in the world, you know that’s grace in you.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Special thanks to Sister Helen Prejean, Sister Margaret Maggio, and Carolyn Clulee
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Sister Helen Prejean: The face of love is that when we see injustice and when we see hurt and when we see suffering, we do not turn away and say, “Well, I’m neutral.” The poet Rilke says, “More is required than being swept along.” We take a stand. We begin to act.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
My guest today is Sister Helen Prejean. She’s a Catholic nun in the Order of St. Joseph and author of the 1993 memoir, “Dead Man Walking.” The book recounts her experience of acting as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Shortly after the book was published, actor Susan Sarandon read it and pitched the idea for a movie to director and fellow actor, Tim Robbins. Sarandon eventually won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sister Helen. Now, accolades aside, in this episode, we treat some sensitive subjects.
Sister Helen has become a leading advocate to end the death penalty in the United States. This is one of those topics that will surely draw out our differences. Discussing the issue often generates more heat than light and immediately cuts deep to some of our most human emotions, empathy, revenge, forgiveness, justice.
The interesting thing here is that the debate about state-sponsored killing or the death penalty cuts along different lines, not the usual lines. It’s not as simple as conservative/progressive. That offers us a unique opportunity to consider the ethical implications of Jesus’ love commands, the value of human life, and finding love and justice in the balance.
I urge you to listen and open up to the words of Sister Helen Prejean. She embodies a weighty realism. She makes her points with utterly compelling stories of loss and redemption. Her mode of discourse is both disarming and loving. Her wit will leave you in stitches. Her reasoning will leave you thinking hard. Her stories will often leave you choked up.
Enough of all that. Really, I could have kept the intro short. You’re going to like this one, folks. Enjoy.
How do you introduce yourself to folks?
Sister Helen: I just say, “I’m Sister Helen Prejean, and I’m a Sister of St. Joseph. That’s the religious order I belong to. I wrote “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocents,” and I work to end torture and the death penalty in the United States and around the world.
Evan: Why did you become a nun?
Sister Helen: I wanted a deep spiritual life, and I wanted to be an educator. Our nuns were great. I went to St. Joseph Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They were humorous. They were fun, good, and human. I said, “I want to do that.” Somehow, deep in my being, I never did picture myself marrying one little man, having one little family in this little house with this little picket fence. I wanted to go wide.
Evan: Yeah, and you have.
Sister Helen: Being a Catholic nun enables you to do that. You keep learning. You’re part of a community, so you get support. I see it as catching a wave and riding it and continuing to ride it. The spirit’s really in there.
Evan: You’re speaking to me. I’m a life-long surfer.
Sister Helen: Oh, God. You live in California, and you’re a real surfer? We flat in Louisiana. The only wave we get is about half-a-foot high.
Evan: What brought about your convictions around saying no to state-sponsored killing?
Sister Helen: I think of grace as what awakens us. Until I was in my 40s, I didn’t get the connection between the gospel of Jesus and the works of justice for the suffering. I’d grown up in white privilege in Baton Rouge during the days of tight segregation. The only way I knew African American people in Baton Rouge was as our servants.
Ellen worked in the house, and Jesse worked in the yard. Didn’t know their last names. Mom and Daddy were kind and actually helped them get a house, helped Jesse get a good job, but never questioned about what it means to automatically be excluded from places simply because of your race.
That awakening to justice is the first part of the journey I talk about in Dead Man Walking. That it wasn’t enough to ask God, to pray and ask God to solve the big problems of the world.
I was living in Louisiana, I was living in New Orleans out in the suburbs, and 50 percent of the city was African American living in dire poverty being beaten up by the police, going to crummy public schools, and without healthcare.
I was living in my own little bubble in a separate world. It wasn’t enough to pray for God to help the poor. I had to roll up my sleeves and get involved. That waking up, I’m still grateful, Evan, that I woke up. It was grace that woke me up in a big way.
Boy, when you can experience a turn in the spiritual trajectory of your life that stays with you and doesn’t leave you, you know that’s God’s action in you. That’s what happened to me. When I realized that, I moved into the St. Thomas Housing Projects, and African American people became my teachers.
They taught me about the other America. I didn’t go as a white woman savior to go help the poor black people. They taught me. When you grow up with resources all around you and privileges, you can think you’re virtuous. “Hey, look, I’m leading a good life. Look at this. I’m doing these good things.” Boy, I saw real courage, and I saw real suffering, violence all around.
Evan: That’s just everyday life.
Sister Helen: Everyday life, and with no hope in the sense of the kids are going to the public schools, and they come out and they can’t read. I went to the best academy. I went to the best colleges and to graduate school at Notre Dame University. Studied the Scriptures, studied theology.
I was given the best. You could be studying theology and think you’re pretty hotshot with God. Boy, you understand all these things. “I read these people. Well, I know about theology.
Evan: That’s no joke, yeah.
Sister Helen: No. It’s a real allurement. Religion can be an allurement away from the radical root, Jesus’ call to be with the dispossessed on the margins, to become one with them, to stay on the road, and depend on Christian community to be our hospitality as we go.
We want to get our possessions. We want to get our little stake in the turf and be independent. Then from there, we’ll do our little sorties out to go help the people, but to live in that kind of radical dependence on where God’s calling us is…
I mean, to live in this American culture and to try to live in that radical lifestyle, if you don’t have good community around you of other people trying to do that, you lose the consciousness very quickly and fall into the consumerism. Even in buying theology books or whatever you’re doing, you could make religion your little thing.
Evan: About the book and the movie, do you think Susan Sarandon did a good job?
Sister Helen: Oh, she did. She made that movie happen.
Sister Helen: She read the book right after it came out in paperback and pestered Tim Robbins for nine months because she knew we needed a new kind of film. We had formulaic movies about the death penalty. Most of the movie was devoted to, well, is the person guilty or not? Terrible crime, person guilty or not? Yeah, he’s guilty.
Then, execution follows. Justice is done. End of the movie, end of reflection. What if you have a film that takes you over to both sides of the suffering? The victim’s family and what they’re suffering? Then the perpetrator and his mother and his sisters and his brothers and what they’re suffering?
Then also, the suffering of the guards and the people that we hire to do the killing for us. All of this is suffering that we are bringing on ourselves by choosing, by taking the stance that it’s OK for government to decide that there are some people who have forfeited the right to life, and we’re going to take their life for what they did.
Evan: Watching executions, you’ve watched…Is it five?
Sister Helen: Six.
Evan: Six now, six. We’ve watched executions for a long time.
Sister Helen: What do you mean by watch?
Evan: We’ve witnessed them.
Sister Helen: You’ve heard of them. You haven’t witnessed them, have you?
Evan: Oh, not personally.
Sister Helen: That’s what I mean.
Evan: I mean, as a culture though.
Sister Helen: Well, that’s very interesting.
Evan: Going back even to the French Revolution, we’ve witnessed executions, going back to Jesus’ own execution. It looks like we’re looking for some kind of satisfaction in taking revenge on the wrong done.
Sister Helen: You know what? That’s so interesting, what you’re saying. When I came out of the execution chamber in Louisiana when I had witnessed, which is a different word from watching…
Evan: Yes. This is what I want you to speak to.
Sister Helen: Yeah, right, and watched the man who was guilty with his brother of a terrible crime, watched this man I’d known for two years walked across a room, strapped down, killed in front of my eyes, coming out of that chamber in the middle of the night, I vomited.
I remember thinking very clearly to myself, “The people are never ever going to see this close-up.” They’re going to hear about it. They’re going to hear about the crime. They’re going to say justice was done, but I’ve been a witness. I’ve got to tell the story and bring people close. That’s what the book of Dead Man Walking is. That’s what every talk that I do is.
I say to people, “Let me take you with me into this experience, and I will bring you there.” That’s witnessing. Then, by witnessing, that’s what the film does. It brings people over the both sides of victims’ suffering and the person who did it. We find out, yeah, he’s guilty, so bring it on.
When you witness, then, that here’s a man strapped to a gurney, you can’t get away from the cruciform shape of the lethal injection gurney. You have to stretch out both arms, and “look upon Him who you have pierced.” This is part of the readings in Lent of Holy Week.
Sister Helen: He is pierced. He’s dying because he did a crime. Now, he’s dying for that. We call that justice. To bring people close, I knew, would be what we needed because that is what had happened to me.
Get it out of the realm of, “Oh, well, he deserves to die for what he did,” and to move into the other side of the moral equation, who deserves to kill him? What happens to the people who do the killing for us is another part of this.
Evan: Moral injury, right?
Sister Helen: Moral injury. Good, yeah, we’re learning that.
Evan: This is a question of what do perpetrators experience morally when they perpetrate something like this?
Sister Helen: Then also, the victim’s family is told, “Now, you wait.” Here, in California, the average wait for execution, if it ever happens, is 25 years.
The victim’s families get told, “Now, you keep your life in holding pattern here. Then we’ll summon you when it’s time, and you get to witness as we kill the one who killed your loved one. By witnessing, this will heal you. It will give you closure. It will give you justice.”
Can it? Can a victim’s family who has suffered the loss of a human being that can never be replaced, because we’re unique when we’re created by God — it’s a universe loss that can never be replaced — and the promise that, “By witnessing our violence now, it will heal you,” can that possibly ever be true?
Is violence redemptive? All we have to do is imitate the violence he did. We try to clean it up a little bit, make an antiseptic to put alcohol in your arm before they put the needle in. Now, this family is going to witness that?
We have witnesses, Evan, waking up in the victim’s families. In New Jersey, nine years ago, when the legislature was considering repealing the death penalty, 62 murder victims’ families testified, “Don’t kill for us. The death penalty revictimizes us. You’re making us wait for a closure that is never going to happen.”
Evan: Let me ask this as a question. Does it ask them to become complicit, then, in the moral injury?
Sister Helen: Well, that’s an interesting question. Prosecutors will justify it. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a death penalty trial, you see that prosecutor pointing over to the victim’s family and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look at that family. They’re never going to see their daughter graduate from college or see their grandchildren. Do justice for that family.”
They use it to legitimize what it is that they’re asking the jury to do. Also, the moral hurt, then, begins to extend to jury people. They’re ordinary citizens, asked whether or not they are going to participate in the decision to kill their fellow human being.
Evan: This is a description of retributive justice, this idea of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Put on balance, for me, forgiveness versus vengeance. I’ve read, and you suggested, that a spirit of vengeance has really overtaken political, social, legal discourse.
Sister Helen: It’s also moral laziness. It seems like a real nice shorthand to say, “They killed, they die.” I mean, it’s just moral laziness, too. It’s politicized, because you get elected to office being tough on crime, OK?
Sister Helen: Here’s the thing. I don’t have advice about forgiveness. I have a story about a man. He’s the hero of Dead Man Walking.
Evan: That’s Pat.
Sister Helen: Pat Sonnier was the perpetrator who, with his brother, killed Lloyd LeBlanc’s son, David, who was 17. It’s the Lloyd LeBlanc story. That’s the key story. I met him at the Pardon Board hearing where the lines are drawn. You sign a book when you go in, what side you’re on. Are you for life or death? That’s when I met him.
He said, “Sister, all this time, you even visited him with those two brothers”— that was Pat and Eddie Sonnier — “and you never once came to see us.” He said, “Sister, you can’t believe the pressure that we’ve been under with this death penalty.”
I was shocked about that. I didn’t know the victim’s family. What does he mean, pressure? Doesn’t every victim’s family…? If you lose a loved one, don’t you want to see the ultimate justice done, that he deserves to lose his life? “Yeah, I’m all for it.”
This man, he took me into his journey. I went to pray with him. I got to meet him. He grew to trust me. He took me into his journey of losing his only son. What he meant by pressure was everybody was saying to him, “Lloyd, they killed David, your son. If you’re not for the death penalty, it’d look like you didn’t love your boy.”
Look at the symbolism in society. It’s this cultural stuff here, pressure on people, because you’ve had the ultimate loss and you’re not going to choose the ultimate punishment. What’s wrong with you?
He said, “Sister, I couldn’t hear it anywhere. You weren’t there for me. We’d even go to mass at different parishes to see if we could hear a priest from the pulpit proclaim Jesus’ message. ‘You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say to you, forgive 7 times 70 times.’ The road to forgiveness, and I couldn’t hear it anywhere.”
He said, “With all those people saying that to me, boy, I went there in my imagination and in my heart. I pictured myself killing both of those brothers in the electric chair. They were going to let me pull the switch and I was pulling it slowly because I wanted them to feel pain like they inflicted pain in my whole family.”
Then he said, “I didn’t like what was happening to me. My whole life, I’ve been a kind person. I love to help people. I’m happy when I’m helping people, and I was losing it. I was angry all the time. I was snapping at Eula, my wife, and Vickie. I was filled with this hatred.”
When he told me this, he put out his hand like this, and then he said, “Then I just said uh-uh. They killed my boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me.” He set his face to go down the road that Jesus had taught about forgiveness.
He said, “People think forgiveness is weak, like forgive and forget. You kill my son, but I’ll forgive you, like you’re condoning it. Condoning it? I could never condone it. Every time David has a birthday, we lose him all over again.”
Lloyd LeBlanc was the first victim’s family I met who taught me what forgiveness means. It means to give before. Forgive was not letting the love and integrity be overcome by the evil. The love in him, with God’s grace, remained intact so that he stayed filled with love and wasn’t overtaken by the hatred. That’s what forgive…he taught me that.
Every time I give a talk, I work up to the story of this man who’s like the jewel in this book. The letter to the Hebrews says, “We have a cloud of witnesses.” Well, he’s a witness by that living example of that journey of going over to the hatred first.
One victim’s family I met said one time, “It’s like you’re drinking poison and you hope it kills the other one, because you get so poisoned by it that then you’ve lost yourself too. You’re not the one made by God to be this loving person, no matter what. You don’t want to lose that love and integrity in your being.”
With God’s grace, Lloyd LeBlanc and the other victims’ families who have had their loved ones murdered are showing us the way.
Evan: It’s often said, “Hate hurts the hater, but love benefits the lover.”
Sister Helen: Yeah. That’s a more general, abstract way of saying it. Yeah, that’s true. There’s a Native American proverb that says the one who seeks to go on the journey of revenge should first dig two graves.
Evan: Yeah. You pointed out the apparent weakness of forgiveness, but really, it’s this humble expression of very great power.
Sister Helen: Very great power, where love will not be overcome in me. You have that in the stories of Anne Frank, and people, too, during the Holocaust, who were subjected to this evil. They come out, and that’s grace.
When you see that happening in a human being, and in ourselves when we’re called to leave this little ego-centered thing of our lives, to pour ourselves out in something bigger than ourselves, to help justice come in the world, you know that’s grace in you.
Evan: Hey, thanks for listening to The Table Audio. It is such a huge honor to bring these conversations to you. You might not know, besides this podcast you’re listening to, we have a YouTube channel and a website with several hundred resources. Enough to keep you occupied while you’re in line at the DMV.
For instance, Sister Helen joined us in March 2016, along with theologian Stanley Hauerwas and social psychologist Christena Cleveland, for our event, “Love No Matter What.” You can find those event talks and much more on our website.
Probably the best way to get into that content is to subscribe to our email list. It’s free. We send regular emails with no spam, discounts for our e-courses, upcoming events, and latest links for new stuff to read, listen to, watch. Of course, oldies but goodies from our archive as well.
Head over to our home page, CCT.biola.edu, sign up for The Table, and add some wisdom to your inbox. Now back to the conversation. Wisdom from Sister Helen awaits.
Evan: Humility. What is Christian humility to you in this context?
Sister Helen: First of all, it’s recognizing those of us that are privileged. It’s not that we’re so blooming virtuous. We’ve just been [laughs] so blooming protected, resourced, and cushioned, so we better go do some good in the world. “I never broke the law, I don’t do drugs,” but look at all you’ve been given.
Humility is truth. First, truth about our own lives, then also truth about, how are we under pressure? When have we been pressured because we did something, and then we’re tempted to lie about it, to save face, to cover over it, to look good? It’s in all of us.
Some of us have just been more protected than others or we go to a nice university. Did we make all the money? How did we come into it? I didn’t practice slavery or anything, but nobody who’s white and successful in the South can say that in some way, we didn’t benefit from slavery. We’re all interconnected in it.
Humility also drives us to read history and to know the truth. It’s real easy to lose a sense of context for everything. Then we begin to live in this little bubble with people who are just like us. Everybody looks just like me. Everybody’s had the same advantages I’ve had.
Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church into this. Get out of the buildings. Get out of being the administrators of religion. Go into the margins. Go and stand and be with people.
Evan: Really, he’s leading more than just the Catholic Church.
Sister Helen: No, he’s leading the world, I agree. Boy, do we need him.
Evan: I want to ask you about death row inmates’ experience, the kind of suffering they encounter. Not just death row inmates, I suppose, but just life in prison. You’ve said that death row inmates die a thousand times before they physically die. Can you speak to the suffering that they endure?
Sister Helen: Sure. We have signed the UN Convention against Torture, which is an extreme mental or physical assault on someone who’s been rendered defenseless — the defenseless part is important in that — and they’re sentenced to death, put into a small cell.
I’m accompanying a man on death row now, Manuel Ortiz from El Salvador. He’s going on 23 years in 6.5 feet by 8.5 feet of a cage. That means you’re deprived of sensory deprivation. Sensory deprivation is big. You don’t get to meet people. You’re not in the regular flow of social encounters with people.
You get a thousand signals a day that you’re nothing but disposable human waste. You are so bad and so evil that this society is going to destroy you. The boredom, too, wears on you. You’re getting depression. Some people on death row just sleep almost 24 hours. They just sleep, sleep, sleep, so that you can bear it.
You lose all energy for creativity, to desire to want to know things, to read. To what purpose? They’re going to kill you anyway. It’s a horrible, horrible place to be. If you don’t build a deep spiritual resilience, you die before you die. That dying a thousand times is when human beings who are imaginative and conscious are sentenced to be killed.
They imagine going to their death. Wake up with the same nightmare. “They’re coming to get me. It’s my time. I’m fighting and screaming. Then I wake up and I’m in my cell.” You go through it in your mind again and again and again.
I’ve been with people when they’re executed. They just say, “I need it to be over. I need it to be over. I hope my legs hold me up. Pray, Sister, that my legs hold me up when I walk to my death.”
Evan: Just down to a shadow of existence, almost.
Sister Helen: Exactly. Albert Camus in France wrote “Reflections on the Guillotine.” He talks about people being a package. You have no agency. They move you from place to place. They say you can have something, then they take it away from you. You’re dependent on people getting you a lawyer because you’re poor.
The other thing is that 90 percent of the people who end up on death row in the United States were abused in some way as children. They started out their life being told that they were trash, treated like trash, and then they explode in violence. Then the state is going to kill them.
Evan: When you attempt to humanize death row inmates, I can only imagine that your critics are constantly going to remind you and everyone else that they’re there for a reason. They’ve perpetrated some deep wrong, some very vile crime. How do you maintain this project of humanizing them?
Bring us into your experience of what must be a long, long battle. What is it like to try to respond to these criticisms that they got what is coming to them?
Sister Helen: You expressed it exactly. That’s what prosecutors say. During a death penalty trial, they’ll say to the jury, “Don’t have any feelings of sympathy for him. He didn’t respect the human rights of his victim. He crossed the line. He’s putting himself on that lethal injection gurney. He’s going to get what he deserves.” That’s exactly the language.
Where the moral failure is, is to identify a human person completely with an action. Everybody is worth more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. That’s human transcendence. God’s made us that way.
One time, when I was waiting for a man to be executed, the guard was there. He pulled me over to the side, and he said, “Sister, the man we’re killing tonight is a very different man from that young, brash animal that came in through these gates, cursing God and everybody. For 15 years, he’s been reading, he’s been reflecting, he’s been changing, and we got to kill him anyway.”
The big moral failure of a death penalty is that we take on ourselves to identify a person with a certain action, freeze-frame them in that, and then freeze-frame ourselves, then, in having to kill them.
Evan: Yeah. I want to ask you. In your 2004, “Death of Innocents,” you start with, in the epigram, this Jimmy Glass…is it a poem?
Sister Helen: The poem, yeah, “The Earthen Vessel.”
Evan: I wonder if you’d read it for me.
Sister Helen: Sure. It’s a great poem. This is a reason for us all to be humble because this is the way life comes to us.
The earthen vessel may hold the rarest wine / The handwrought silver goblet — gall / The tattered cover — words of wisdom / The gold-edged leaf — the cruelest lie / Stumbling words — love’s true oath / The silver tongue — a razor’s edge / The truth arrives disguised / Therein the sorrow lies.
Jimmy Glass, he was executed in 1987.
Evan: Tell me about Jimmy, and tell me what that poem means.
Sister Helen: Jimmy Glass, he was a beautiful creature. He had beautiful blue eyes. He was involved in a terrible, terrible murder which he participated in. He did another equally heinous thing. He involved another man, Jimmy Wingo, saying he was there and he participated in the murder. He lied about that.
He was mad at Jimmy Wingo because Jimmy Wingo had turned him in, so he caused Jimmy Wingo to be executed. He had participated in the killing of two elderly people in cold blood. He may have been what you call a sociopath because there was something about seeing blood that excited him.
Something was wrong, but you look at that beautiful face, and then you look at that beautiful poem. Then you try to put it together with the man who did this. You cannot put your mind around it. You can’t grasp it.
Human beings are mysteries, anyway. When people like Jimmy do such an evil thing and cause Jimmy Wingo to be executed…and Jimmy Wingo went to his death saying, “I wasn’t even there. You know, this is solely on the word of Jimmy Glass, and I’m going to my death.”
You can’t put your mind together. You can’t get a hold of it. That’s why the reconciliation in Christ that reconciles, we, as human beings, can’t deal with the big mysteries.
We’re going to spend the rest of our life trying to even understand the mystery of ourselves, much less these kind of acts of amazing love, like Lloyd LeBlanc, amazing evil like Jimmy Glass, who could write beautiful poems and do such an unspeakable, ungodly thing.
Evan: Being witness to, not just the suffering of murder victims, but murderers themselves, and just having spent so long reflecting, one way to really think about your ministry is, how can we put this vicious cycle of death to end?
Sister Helen: You know how you do it? The way it ended in me, when I got involved, is you wake up the people. You bring the story to the people to enable them to stand in the outrage of the crime. That’s an important part of the spiritual journey.
You can’t gloss over how terrible the crime was in order to get to human rights and the message of Jesus. You can’t short-circuit the journey to feel the outrage because we respect human life. That life was aborted. These two teenagers are shot down in cold blood. The young girl was raped in the Sonnier murders. We have to go there.
I had a great editor, who helped me shape Dead Man Walking. If he hadn’t helped me shape that book, bringing people into the crime first and standing in my own outrage before that, young people being brutally mowed down and killed, then gradually taking people over to…we say now, “That person deserves to die.”
Let me take him to what it really means for us to kill them. You watch with me and see for yourself. That is what changes hearts.
What most people say after I do a talk, “It’s storytelling now.” It’s not a lecture. It’s not a lesson in theology. It’s storytelling because you make it incarnate. You make it real. You put it in the flesh. I use myself as the one who experienced it, who didn’t understand it, and at first did not get it right about the victims’ family.
I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t reach out to them at all. That was part of Lloyd LeBlanc saying, “Sister, where have you been? You haven’t been here for us at all.” Gradually, then, to take him, to “look on Him whom they have pierced,” to bring him into an execution, that brings us back to our word, “witness.”
To witness is to enter into the realm of the suffering, and to see, through that terrible action, that this is a human being, being killed tonight in the state power. State government is doing the killing.
Where does that leave us as a society? We have just imitated the worst possible human action to try to say that that is not what we want to have in our society. We have become complicit in it. We are imitating them, much less promising the victim’s family that if they watch this act of violence by the government, that will heal them.
We wake up on this the way we have awakened about slavery. It took a long time not to think of slaves as property, but to see those were human beings. We had a very busy auction block for slaves in New Orleans, right near where the cathedral is. People, I can picture, coming out of church on Sunday, walking through Jackson Square.
There was the auction block. There was a mother just being separated from her children, with the slave owners buying the children, maybe leaving the mother, or maybe taking the mother and leaving the children. We didn’t see it.
See, culture keeps us from seeing the evil, the hurt, and the suffering. We have a way of what we say. “Oh, well, those are just slaves. They’re not real humans like us.” We did the same thing with Native Americans. “They’re not real human like we are. They’re just savages.” Religion and the sword come right in together very, very often. The Catholic Church has been terribly complicit in all of that for Native American people.
When you drive to Angola today, Angola is the name of our prison. It’s named from slaves that came from Angola to work on the plantations. You look and see who’s walking out to the fields to work.
It’s overwhelmingly, 75 percent, African Americans with hoes over their shoulders walking out to the fields with guards on horseback with guns at either end of the column, and you go, “What’s changed?”
Elmo Patrick Sonnier: Sister Helen, I’m going to die.
Sister Helen: The truth has made you free.
Patrick: God knows the truth about me. I’m going to a better place. I’m not worried about nothing. You all right?
Sister Helen: Yes. I’m OK. Christ is here.
Patrick: I’m not worried about anything.
Sister Helen: OK. Look, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. I’ll be the face of love for you.
Patrick: Yes, ma’am.
Prison Guard: Time to go, Poncelet.
Patrick: Can Sister Helen touch me?
Prison Guard: Yes, she may. Dead man walking!
Evan: The face of love quote. You speak of the witnesses to the execution, but you told Pat before he was killed, “I want the last thing in this world you see to be the face of love. You look at me.” Tell me about what went into that conversation.
Sister Helen: He had said to me, “Look, Sister, you can’t be there at the end and watch this, because it could scar you. You just pray for me and pray God holds up my legs as I make the walk.”
I just absolutely knew in my being. I said, “Pat, I don’t know what it’s going to do to me. I’ve never been involved with this, but I know this. You are not going to die with every one of those witnesses there to see you die. I will be there, and you look at me and I’ll be the face of Christ. This is not what Christ wants us to do. You look at me.”
I was strong, Evan. I was really strong. The grace comes up inside you. It was absolute. There was no question about it. He looked at me, and when I walked out of that killing chamber that night, that face, not just that he looked at me but I was looking at him. That’s why I say it’s witnessing, not just watching, because it was such an experience of grace.
I mean, it grabbed my soul and I haven’t been able to leave it since. It’s why I still do the work, to wake people up. It’s out of compassion for the American people. We haven’t reflected deeply on this issue and said, “Yeah, we want the government to kill people.” We haven’t reflected hardly at all.
Evan: We’re leaving it to Supreme Court justices.
Sister Helen: Yeah, or you leave it to the courts, or it’s a legal matter. Boy, but people do have good hearts. If they can be brought into the suffering, if they can have it unmasked to see what it is for itself, they don’t really want to do that. They really don’t. I don’t know if I could still be doing this after 30 years and people going, “Boo, yes, fry him. Fry him.”
At the end of it, they’re not saying that. They get the books. They want to read. Reading is a very reflective experience because you don’t need to debate with anybody. Words can take you into some very deep places because you’re using your imagination.
Your emotions are involved in the journey when you read a book that takes you to a very deep place. I’m hopeful. I can see it’s beginning to end. It’s beginning to be shut down. More and more, California’s coming really close.
Evan: What is the face of love today? What do we have to hope for?
Sister Helen: The face of love is that when we see injustice, and when we see hurt, and when we see suffering, we do not turn away and say, “Well, I’m neutral.” The poet Rilke says, “More is required than being swept along.” We take a stand. We begin to act. You know what the gift is? We meet a tremendous community of people.
You can’t do these things alone. There’s no room for lone rangers. They don’t last long. They’re a little flash in the pan, and then it’s over. That’s why we need the Christian community.
That’s why we gather around the story of Jesus, remembering His love for us. Why we gather around Eucharist, why we gather and feed on the Scriptures, that we drink from the Scriptures, from the fountainhead of the Scriptures.
In those Scriptures is where we encounter Jesus. Not the pious Jesus of all these images we build up, but the real Christ who’s calling us to do what He did in the world, to be His hands, to be His eyes, to be His love in the world. That’s going to be a challenge every day of our life. A sure sign of it is energy and joy. When we are alive with the life of God in us, we’re joyful.
Evan: Sister Helen, thank you. [laughs]
Sister Helen: Thank you, Evan.
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester. Special thanks to Sister Helen Prejean, Sister Margaret Maggio, and Carolyn Clulee. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, wherever you listen to podcasts.
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