Love, Justice, and Dead Man Walking
Sister Helen Prejean describes how the gospel awakened her to be a person of justice and not just charity. Learn how God led her to New Orleans to live among poor African American families, and eventually on to death row. As told in her book, Dead Man Walking (which became a 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), Sr. Helen befriended both a death row inmate who had killed two teenagers as well as the victims’ families. Witnessing the legal killing of a human being by death penalty has led her to advocate for the abolishment of state-sponsored killing.
So, what I wanna do is just say, lemme tell you what happened to me. I really, when Stanley Hauerwas said that about the experience of being forgiven, ’cause I’m gonna take you with me into experiences of death row and people being executed. And over to the side of murder victims’ families. And, the basic journey is gonna be both arms of the cross.
And we have in the scriptures this week, holy week, “They will look upon him whom they have pierced” and the cruciform image of the lethal injection gurney is in fact, cruciform. And we are piercing people and killing them. And we’re good people. We, the American people, are good people. How could it happen that a good people like us, that have kind hearts and are generous, could be having, this kind of official death take place, often with the blessing from the community of faith, that Christians did not raise our voices strongly in the beginning.
This has been going on for 30 years. So when Stanley was talking about, ’cause we have the experience of being forgiven, it’s the way I wanna talk about grace, that grace wakes us up. Grace awakened me.
I was 40 years old before I began to understand that the gospel of Jesus was calling me, not just simply to be kind and to be charitable and to pray for people, but to roll up my sleeves and be there and be a servant and go cross boundaries, to people who are struggling and poor and of whom I was afraid. I grew up in privilege. I grew up as a young girl in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during the days of Jim Crow and the only African-Americans I ever knew personally, were Ellen who worked in the house with mama, and Jesse who worked in the yard. I didn’t even know their last names. So I went to a private girl’s school, all white.
Sacred Heart church, African-American people, had to sit in a special place in the church. When it came time for our first communion, in which we experienced in a sacrament, how we are all one body, black kids had to receive their holy communion separately. And I never questioned it. And that’s what culture does. Culture gives us eyes, ears. Well honey, it’s better that the races stay separate in the South, otherwise they’ll be fighting.
And they like to be with their own kind and we like to be with our own kind. And so to awaken, to the gospel call to justice was grace. I didn’t wake myself up. I didn’t wake, we can’t wake ourselves up. God wakes us up. [audience clapping] Grace means that we awaken. ‘Cause we can’t make ourselves be enlightened. We go in a little cave for 10 years, do a little press conference before we go in, announce that we’re gonna fast. And well, we can announce that we gonna come out skinnier.
But we cannot announce, that we gonna come out enlightened. We can’t wake ourselves up to that. It was very telling when Stanley said this, “We need another to tell us our sin.” Because we are always, always searching, always going, “What Lord, what, what next?” To be human is to search. To be human is to have this infinite capacity, to wanna to know truth and to love. And we’re never gonna stop doing that. So let me tell you what happened to me. This book right here is about God waking me up and where it took me, alright?.
It’s eye-witness account. I witness. Let me tell you what happened to me. And when we share our faith journey with each other, that’s all we doing. You say let me tell you, what happened to me. And how God woke me up. And how through community, I awakened. And I’m gonna take you here into this journey with me and we’re gonna go to both arms, of the cross.
The perpetrator on one arm, who did an unspeakable act, and how can we talk with that person. How can we possibly deal with that person as someone who deserves our dignity, their dignity, but much less our love. And on the other hand, the victim’s family, who wake up one morning and it’s an ordinary day and before the sun sets, they have been plunged into unbelievable violence and tragedy that is gonna mar their lives, for the rest of their lives.
And in a country, that says, the way we’re gonna deal with violent offenses, there are some people who have done murders, that are so bad, “the worst of the worst” the Supreme Court has called them. The worst of the worst, that it is okay. In fact it’s acceptable, that we’ll set up a process to discern and sift out the worst of the worst and to kill them. How can this be happening to us and that we have allowed it?
You live in California and if you’re a resident of California, your state has 744 human beings, in death row cages tonight. The largest death row in the United States. They’ve all been condemned to death. And we as citizens and as residents of this state, cannot say we’re neutral about that, because if we are not resisting it, if we are not working to change it, we are complicit. If we are silent about it, we are complicit. Because we are a democracy and we cannot say some authoritarian government suddenly put that in place and we had nothing to do with it. So it’s all about this journey and about this waking up.
So what happened to me was, coming out of this place of privilege, going to private Catholic schools, going to Notre Dame University in the summer and studying theology. I studied scripture. I studied theology. But the waking up, and I take you into that in the first part of this book. And it was, I heard a talk. How many times had I gone to conferences and heard talks? And we never know, when it’s gonna be the moment, that the spirit is gonna strike fire in our hearts and awaken us. And that’s the first part that I began to realize, out of that talk, that Jesus calls us to go to the margins, to cross the boundaries. I was working in a Catholic parish in New Orleans, out in the suburbs with good people.
Saint Francis Cabrini, we were doing good stuff. We’ve learned scripture, we were learning really good stuff. And we had in the inner city of New Orleans, over 50% of our residents of New Orleans, African-American people who were living in poverty. And were having experiences you’d see, you’d get glimmers on the news, but I had never gone to those places. I had never gone to be with people. And when I awakened, I moved into the Saint Thomas housing projects and, lo and behold, other people had been awake long before me. And I moved in there with four nuns.
We were the only white people in Saint Thomas housing projects. And I sat at the feet of African-American people, to become our teachers about the America I had never known. My daddy was a lawyer. My daddy had resources. My daddy knew judges. My daddy was a great businessman in Baton Rouge. I didn’t know what it was, to ever walk in a room and just have people look at me funny because of the color of my skin. They might disagree with me because, we disagree politically or whatever. And I began to learn and I’m still so grateful to be awake, that I awakened and that the people taught me.
I learned every young black man had a community meeting, talked abut what had happened to them with the police. I wasn’t scared of the police. If my car had broken down on the highway in Louisiana and the state trooper had pulled up behind me I’d say, “Oh good, there’s help.” Every young man in that community had had bad experiences with the police. I went to good schools. And when you get educated, then your gifts are honed and developed so that you can become an agent of persuasion and change in the community, can make things happen. Kids were coming into our adult learning center, who had gotten as far as their junior year in high schools, in the public schools of New Orleans.
I was always part of the Catholic private school system. And here comes a kid, well, how far did you get while I was a junior? Well look, you’re gonna get your GED. We’re gonna work with you individually in your reading in your math and he couldn’t read a third grade reader. What’s gonna happen to an African-American kid, who gets out of high school and can’t read? What’s gonna happen to him?
And it’s not that I was so virtuous. I was so blooming protected and cushioned and resourced. Young girls coming in, had a baby by the time they were 14 or 15 years old. Going to Charity Hospital to sit with people because they don’t have healthcare. Louie, my little brother, almost died when he was six months old, but mama had gone to nursing school at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge and she knew the doctors. And they got Louie and Louie got good medical help. And it saved his life. And here I go with Geraldine Johnson with her shivering kid, high with fever, and sits in a plastic chair, in Charity Hospital and waits till a young intern from LSU Medical School is gonna come and call her at two o’clock in the morning and take her kid because she didn’t have healthcare. I never knew.
I knew in general that things were like this. But it was the experiencing of the suffering. And seeing a system that caused the suffering. And that I couldn’t just be neutral. Rilke the German poet said, “More is required than being swept along.” And I awakened, to that mother in that Charity Hospital and to those kids that were going to public schools, ’cause they didn’t have a choice. They couldn’t go to Saint Mary’s Dominican. They couldn’t go to Saint Joseph Academy. And the passage in scripture that became very very special to me and still is, is Moses and that burning bush. “Let me go see the bush that burns and yet doesn’t seem to be consumed or burnt up.”
And the first voice coming from the heart of God, in Revelation and Exodus, he gets close and the voice says, “I have heard the cry of my people.” It took me a long time to hear the cry of the people in my own country and the suffering. And they took me by the hand and they taught me. And it’s while I was there in the Saint Thomas housing projects, working at a place called Hope House, where I come out to Saint Andrews street and here comes a friend who worked in the Louisiana Prison Coalition office.
And if I don’t even know, what’s happening with half, of the city of my brothers and sisters in New Orleans, you know I don’t know what’s going on in prisons. “I’ve never been to a prison, you kidding me, prison?” And he sees me, and I want to introduce an idea here into this wonderful place, that Jesus is sneaky. I mean, Sneaky Jesus! [audience laughing] I wanna talk about Sneaky Jesus in two parts.
Two parts, and here’s Sneaky Jesus part one. Here’s comes Chaval Cole and this is wide book open. “Hey Sister Helen!” he had a little clipboard. He had a little project going. Everybody he sees, he’s gonna ask you to be apart of that project. He goes, “Hey Sister Helen, you wanna be a pen pal to somebody on death row here in Louisiana?” And I was learning about all the social justice issues. I said “Yeah!” I was an English major. I could write some nice letters to that person in– [audience laughs] I didn’t think they were gon’ kill this person. We hadn’t had an execution in 20 years.
There had been an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in the United States. And in Louisiana too in the Deep South states. Which, by the way, have done 7.5%, 75% of all executions. The real executioners in the United States, are the 10 southern states that practiced slavery. And boy, your little sociological minds could just start making all the connections. [audience chuckles]
And eight out of every 10 people that are sitting on death row, considered “the worst of the worst” are there ’cause they killed white people. Even though the majority of homicide victims in this country are people of color. If your life doesn’t matter, you’re not outraged over somebody’s death that you’re gonna seek the ultimate punishment. So lives have to have status.
Black lives matter? Boy, doubly true. But when you’re killed, 90% of all the homicide victims in New Orleans, are people of color. Are often young men killing other young men. And you never see a D.A. seek the death penalty. So “Hey Sister Helen, you wanna be a pen pal?”
I say sure, give me the name. Patrick Sonnier, it’s the first story in this book. I write the man a letter. You know what the problem was? He wrote back. [audience laughs] And he’s telling me about life in a six-and-a-half foot, I mean yeah, foot cell by eight-and-a-half feet and I’m talking about Hope House. And it all unfolded the way God’s spirit works with us. I wanna talk about a flower opening, it was gentle. It’s wasn’t this big dramatic thing. “I’m gonna go to death row. I’m gonna be the death row nun.” [audience giggles]
You know, it all unfolds, it unfolds. I write, he writes. And then from his letters I knew he didn’t have anyone to come visit him. He didn’t even ask me to come. But how many times, how many retreats had I made? How much scripture had I studied? Where I’d read the words of Jesus. “I was in prison and you came to me.”
And boy you know, we’re our own spin doctors, with these scriptures. [audience laughs loudly] Because every time I come to those words I’d just go, “Oh well you know there’s a lot of ways of being in prison, you know like you shy. [audience laughs] I mean really! [audience laughing loudly] Like if you’re shy, and you come in a big group of people like you in prison? I mean you don’t know how they do it. [audience laughing and clapping] I never dreamed the words meant, “I was in prison and you came to me.”
So I write to him and we’d begun the encounter, it happened through the letters. In the encounter, Pope Francis is trying to teach us that, encounter, get out of the comfortable places. Go to where the people are. Let the encounter happen and the spirit then leads us in that. And so I wrote to him, just a simple little note. I just said I’ll come see you sometimes. And here’s Sneaky Jesus part two. [audience laughs]
Because immediately in the return mail, visit to farms, you’ll come see me. And he said simply, “Look I’m a catholic, you’re are a nun, will you be my spiritual advisor?” Alright sure, I fill out the form, I got no felony, send it in. And I don’t know, that two years, from the time I write that letter to him, the only one who can be with a person who’s being executed, is a spiritual advisor.
And then it quartered it, it’s gonna happen at midnight, in the electric chair, and a quarter to six, everybody is gonna leave the death house, except the spiritual advisor, who’s gonna be me. We have a spiritual maxim in our community that says, never leap ahead of grace. The grace comes into us and we move with the grace. Kinda like the way, if you’ve ever seen a ship in the locks, the water is at different level, the ship goes into the locks, the water comes up, and then you move and that’s what that experience was, in that death house with that man. What had he done? I came to it late, he and his brother had killed, two teenage kids. And at first when I was writing the book, I downplayed that I didn’t reach out to the victim’s family, ’cause I’d never done it before and I said I didn’t know what to do with victim’s family.
And I had a great editor. I’ve only worked with great Jewish editors at Random House for both of these books. And when he looks at the first draft of the dead man walking, he said, “Hellen, that was a bad mistake, and you wait far too long, in the way you write your story about taking people in to stand in the presence of this crime, where two innocent teenage kids are found shot in the back of the head and left in the sugarcane field, and if you don’t bring people over, to both sides, of this struggle and face the crime and the outrage that you feel early in the book, nobody is gonna read your book, cause they’re gonna say, well, she is a catholic nun, she is a spiritual advisor, she believes in the forgiveness of Jesus and they’re gonna think, you’re not gonna take him there. They’re gonna think you can’t face the horror and the outrage of what was done.
That you’re gonna be so overly sympathetic for the human rights of the perpetrator who did it.” And you’d never would have heard of this book, if I hadn’t had that editor, to help me shape that story. And he said, “Your task, is in writing the story, stand in the outrage about those kids and then gradually take the reader with you into what it means to strap in a human being in an electric chair and take that person’s life.
That’s the journey of the book. It’s your own journey and it’s the journey that you take people with you on. And the hero of this book, is not me, I’m the story teller, because I didn’t reach out to the victim’s family and when I did meet them, it was at pardon board hearing, where the victim’s family had packed in, to say to the the pardon board, appointed by the governor, we wanna see the execution proceed because they’ve been told, this is the way you get justice for your dead child. And that’s when I met the victim’s families, who were angry at me, cause I had done nothing to reach out to them. I had done it all wrong.
But this man, Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son David had been killed, he reached out to me and he said, “Sister Hellen, all this time you’ve been visiting with those two brothers and you didn’t come see us. Sister, you can’t believe the pressure on us, with this death penalty. And I hadn’t met anybody to talk to, come pray with me.” And that man took me into his heart and in to his journey. And he said, “Pressure on me, what I meant was, everybody was saying to me, Lloyd LeBlanc you gotta be, for the death penalty, or look like you didn’t love your boy.
And he said, “I had nobody to talk to, to say no that’s not the way of Jesus and you know that’s not what it is in your own heart. I had nobody and sister you weren’t there for me either.” So he said with all those people telling me that, he said, “I went there, I pictured pulling the switch on both these brothers that had done this and I wanted him to feel the pain, because I look at the pain that was in our family.” And he said, “But then I began to discover, what was happening to me.”
And then finally he put his hand out like this and he said, “Uh-uh, they killed our boy, but I’m not gonna let all that hate, that was coming into me, kill me. I’mma do what Jesus said and he set his face to go down the road of forgiveness.” It’s not a one-act deal, oh I forgive, it’s a road, it’s a journey into forgiveness. He was the first victim’s family, that I ever met and I’ve been many now along the way, but he was the first that showed me that what forgiveness is is not so much, primarily relieving the burden of the one who hurt you but it was saving his own life, forgive. God’s loving grace, to keep a love intact so that hatred, did not overcome him and he would lose his own life too.
A profound journey and that’s why I say he’s the hero, I’m the storyteller and I’m still learning, still learning always will be learning. But I’m awake, I’m awake and what’s important, is not when we wake up it’s what we do after we wake up and when we begin to act, it’s liberating to act, the hardest part is what shall I do this, or shall I do that.
Well I’m in discernment for this, well maybe I could do that. Oh it’s very complex, there are a lot of causes in the world, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do? Just put your hand on the Rope and start pulling. Put your hand on the rope, the life rope and start pulling and grace comes in and then reveals the next steps. So I encourage you I want to invite you to come into the journey with me by reading these books.
The second one, is the the death of innocence and it talks about the dialogue we have had in a Catholic Church, including with the Pope. Took for us as Catholics to take a strong stand at what Jesus is about. He’s all about forgiveness and love and integrity not being overcome by hatred. Much less having the government, legitimize it through law or religion legitimize it by their selective hours, selective quoting of the scriptures, that God wants this.
God wants people to pay for their sins, by dying for their sins. And God wants pain for pain and life for life. What kind of God is that? Is that the God of Jesus? And so it’s a journey for all of us and I’m really glad that I could be here with you and share this with you it is a joy to be in your presence and I’m leaving out of here more alive than when I came. Thank you. [upbeat music]