The National Catholic Review
This essay aired as a commentary on NPR Weekend Edition on Sunday, January 6: I watch what I do to see what I really believe. Belief and faith are not just words. It’s one thing for me to say I’m a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it. So, writing this essay and knowing I’ll share it in a public way becomes an occasion for me to look deeply at what I really believe by how I act. "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus said, and as a beginner nun I tried earnestly to love my neighbor -- the children I taught, their parents, my fellow teachers, my fellow nuns. But for a long time, the circle of my loving care was small and, for the most part, included only white, middle-class people like me. But one day I woke up to Jesus’ deeper challenge to love the outcast, the criminal, the underdog. So I packed my stuff and moved into a noisy, violent housing project in an African-American neighborhood in New Orleans. I saw the suffering and I let myself feel it: the sound of gunshots in the night, mothers calling out for their children. I saw the injustice and was compelled to do something about it. I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a nun with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer. Working in that community in New Orleans soon led me to Louisiana’s death row. So, I keep watching what I do to see what I actually believe. Jesus’ biggest challenge to us is to love our enemies. On death row, I encountered the enemy -- those considered so irredeemable by our society that even our Supreme Court has made it legal to kill them. For 20 years now, I’ve been visiting people on death row, and I have accompanied six human beings to their deaths. As each has been killed, I have told them to look at me. I want them to see a loving face when they die. I want my face to carry the love that tells them that they and every one of us are worth more than our most terrible acts. But I knew being with the perpetrators wasn’t enough. I also had to reach out to victims’ families. I visited the families who wanted to see me, and I founded a victims support group in New Orleans. It was a big stretch for me, loving both perpetrators and victims’ families, and most of the time I fail because so often a victim’s families interpret my care for perpetrators as choosing sides -- the wrong side. I understand that, but I don’t stop reaching out. I’ve learned from victims’ families just how alone many of them feel. The murder of their loved one is so horrible, their pain so great, that most people stay away. But they need people to visit, to listen, to care. It doesn’t take anyone special, just someone who cares. Writing this essay reminds me, as an ordinary person, that it’s important to take stock, to see where I am. The only way I know what I really believe is by keeping watch over what I do. Sister Helen Prejean

Comments

Anonymous | 1/28/2008 - 9:15pm
I enjoy listening to NPR essays, "This I believe." For the past 3 years or so I have served as a volunteer chaplain at a men's prison in Texas. My mentor advised me, "Do not look at this so much as a prison, see it as your parish. Just as in a parish, the men all have different needs." There are days when I leave the unit feeling empty and wondering what good, if any I have done. There are others when I leave knowing that I have visited Christ, in "one of his most distressing disguises." My purpose is to share the love and light of God in a place where neither is terribly evident. Finally, I take my hat off to Sr. Helen Prejean for answering the call to serve. Through her speaking and writing she reminds us that God has no favorites -- he loves the victim and the perpetrator, and he calls us to love them both. I pray to grow in my ability to love and to share the love about which she speaks.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 2:54pm
Thank you, Sister, for your deep honesty. Watching you makes me catch my breath a little. When God calls, its good to know that someone else has also experienced the deer-in-headlights response - and then actually moved forward - in your case, in absolutely extraordinary ways. The Lord is nudging me to move in another direction than the one in which He has let me mosey along for all these years, but I'm not yet hearing where we're headed. It's very likely I will drag my feet for awhile, I usually do. I'm spectaculary underqualified. I'm confident I will not be up to the task. But I'm also sure that it probably won't matter all that much to him as he teaches me how to be less afraid of fear, to be willing to be a failure, to run the risk of loving those he loves, even when I don't want to. I want to want to, and I suppose that's enough raw material for him to work with. I know this only because of people like you, who show me how it can be that ordinary folks can be the amazingly healing hands and heart of a terrible, wonderful, passionate and relentlessly loving God.