The National Catholic Review

            It was my honor to interview Sister Helen Prejean during her recent visit to Bakersfield for two talks that took place May 4-5. Sister Helen is well known as the “Dead Man Walking” nun, the face of the global movement to end the death penalty. I met with her at the home of her local hosts, who were gracious and welcoming. “REJOICE,” said the flag outside the door, a most appropriate greeting for this lovely spring morning.

            Because a face-to-face conversation with one’s hero is surely a cause for joy. As I arrived for the interview, I tried to overlook the facts: I am a columnist, not a journalist; in twenty-five years of essays I have never formally interviewed anyone; and I was not at all confident I knew how to use the tape recorder I’d borrowed from my husband. I was unqualified. I was nervous. Let the interview begin!

            Fortunately for me, Sister Helen is a warm and loving human being who immediately put me at ease, and gave expansive and knowledgeable answers to my meager questions. My prayer for the tape recorder to work was answered, and I hereby report some Sister Helen’s responses to a variety of topics, although in print they lack her gentle, sweet, born-in-New-Orleans delivery.

            On California: “I call California the birthplace of the gods – they used to call the Tigris and Euphrates that - because it was the birthplace of everything bubbling up. That’s the way I see California. The hula hoop, the credit card, organic gardening, healthy, whole living, yoga: you name it, California gets it first, it goes over to the east, and gradually it might drift down south. Or not!”

            On the SAFE initiative (“Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement”) to abolish the death penalty, which will appear on the California ballot in November: “I’m working really hard on that. I’ve been in and out of California a lot. I’m going to be coming in October. We’re going to be doing a blitz of cities . . . There are signs that maybe we’ve had it with the death penalty  . . . Gradually now with all the stories – 139 people wrongfully convicted – [show] that we’re getting the wrong person, that we can make mistakes. . . The tide keeps building. The wave is going to hit the shore. You can see now a movement.”

            On the SAFE initiative’s financial component, which will direct $100 million in savings from abolishing the death penalty to investigate rape and murder cold cases: “I’m all for that. It’s a very moral decision about how you use your resources. I quote that from Martin Luther King: ‘A budget is a moral document.’ So looking at our resources, are they going for life or are they going for death?  .  .  . I think we’re beginning to grow. I think we’re beginning to mature as a society . . . To spend your resources for life, that is pro-life.”

            On framing the pro-life definition: We “set up these false dichotomies: what are you, pro-choice? Well then, you’re probably against the death penalty, aren’t you. Against the death penalty means you’re against the victim’s family, aren’t you. All false choices. Reframing things in a new context of life is very important in coming to new consciousness . . . And to hold it open for compassion always means you have the broadest possible framework against which ultimately is that we are all one, and we cannot separate ourselves from each other.”

            On social networking: “I have somebody who helps me with that – I couldn’t do it without Rose: she’s my techie. She monitors it all for me . . . I notice especially at universities that a lot of young people take pictures with their i-phones, and then put it on their Facebook. Social networking is huge. It’s really important!”

            On telling her story: “When I’m over in England or places, they’ll say, ‘What is it about the people of the United States that so ties you to vengeance and the death penalty? Look, most countries in the world have done away with it; why does the United States cling to it?’ And I say to them, ‘It’s not that people are clinging to it, they never thought about it. They haven’t reflected on it.’ So I know what I gotta to do: going around telling the stories, bringing people closer . . . the way of the Gospel is always persuasion. The only authority I have is from the experiences I’ve had and what I’ve reflected on and what I’ve learned. But that’s what people are longing to hear: where you just say, ‘Let me tell you what happened to me.’”

            On writing: “First of all, you become present to it, and it’s discovery; it’s revelation. You have an idea, of course, where you go, and then it starts unfurling. Sometimes it means waiting. Sometimes my image is just doing the breaststroke through peanut butter, and it’s so bad. And you go, ‘What made me think I was gonna do this? This is a terrible idea!’ And then, it’s faithfulness. You keep showing up . . . You become a writer because you write.”

            On the reading process: “I didn’t know the power of a book. I didn’t think I should write a book, because I thought I gotta be out there on the road, I gotta organize and be telling the stories. But when you read, you’re in a very vulnerable, quiet place . . . you’re not talking, you’re not debating. And the words get inside you, and you’re thinking about them . . . You’re not in a defensive, polemical position. You’re just, ‘Let me take this in.’ You’re getting new information you never thought about before.”

            On her new book:  “It’s called ‘River of Fire’. Random House sees it as the prequel to ‘Dead Man Walking’ and it’s my spiritual autobiography. It’s the story of my faith that led me to death row.”

            A scoop from the new book: “They killed a man with fire one night, strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity through his body. His killing was a legal act, because he had killed. No religious leaders protested his killing that night. But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. And what I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still. Now I will take you into the spiritual currents that pulled me to the killing chamber that night.”

            On her role as the face of the cause to end the death penalty: “The cause is everything . . . I think of myself as a transparent plate of glass. You look through me into this fire that’s in there  of experience, but you want people to have an original experience for themselves. That’s the only way compassion can be born, and that’s what you hope for.”

            I could fill plenty more space with Sister Helen’s wisdom and wit. The hour in her company is on my list of top days. When I ventured that I thought of her as a saint, she responded, with self-deprecating humor, “Well, let’s not lay it on too thick.”            

            But I do believe her saintly. The example she sets is a holy one. Along with her busy speaking and writing schedule, Sister Helen is also presently accompanying two men who are on death row. She continues to do the ministry, staying close to the injustice that started her on this path to meaningful change. Lest we forget, she is a potent reminder to be present to the suffering of others in our own lives. And always, humbly and persistently, to walk the talk.

 

 

 

Comments

Dudley Sharp | 5/17/2012 - 7:01am
Mr. Power:

People often shudder at the truth and that is understandable.

Did you shudder at what God/Jesus said or was it something the Popes/Saints said?

The Passion was God's plan. Yes, it makes many shudder, as it should, But the truth is that the Passion was the blessed salvation for all.

What was it, specifically, that I posted that should make any Christian shudder? I suspect you won't respond.

I suspect you were being a bit dramatic. There are at least two sides to any public policy discussion. It is best to have both and to fact check all, which I very much encourage.


Dudley Sharp | 5/17/2012 - 6:48am
Mr. Gleason:

I think you need to observe who wrote the "stolen" "fiction" and "mislead" comments and find out why they said them about Sr. Prejean. I provide the sources for the material and how to contact them.

Do what I do. Fact check.  The truth is the important thing, even when you refuse to see it, as you have.

I was opposed to the death penalty, until I fact checked all the "facts" and found that the anti death penalty claims were either false or that the pro death penalty positions, morally and factually, were stronger, the brief saintly review, above, being one small example.

Another example being that the majority of the world's countries still have the death penalty.

More importanlty, I believe, is that the majority populations of nearly all countries appear to support the death penalty for some crimes, as linked, above.

Why? Justice.

My links are important. I provide confirmable support for my claims and I link to them.

david power | 5/13/2012 - 8:25am
Very good interview.
An intelligent woman who has gone beyond the simple logic of so many in the Church and onto an even simpler one.
Her observation about people "never having reflected " on the death penalty is true in my experience. I am against the death penalty but not dogmatically against it.Those who are dogmatically against it and see it as a point of evolution and say so etc do not win anybody over.Sister is right that the real Gospel act is to persuade not berate. 
The most famous victim of the death penalty is Jesus Christ and for that reason any christian should shudder at what Dudley writes.
 
Eileen Sadasiv | 5/12/2012 - 8:08pm
Thank you, Sister Helen - and all who help and support her.
ed gleason | 5/12/2012 - 2:33pm
Dudley Sharp wrongly  thinks his  harsh attacks on Sr Helen's ideas and motives ['stolen, mislead 'fiction'] will turn around the thinking people and the almost the  unanimity of civilized countries that abhor the death penalty. It was mentioned he was once against the death penalty ..so what idea/event turned him around to start on such a consuming 'crusade'. ? [no links please]
Dudley Sharp | 5/11/2012 - 5:18pm
Some saintly comments

Saint (& Pope) Pius V: "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

God/Jesus: 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.' Matthew 15:4 full context (NAB) www.usccb.org/nab/bible/matthew/matthew15.htm

God: "You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death." Numbers 35:31 (NAB) full context www(DOT)usccb(DOT)org/nab/bible/numbers/numbers35.htm

Saint Paul, in his hearing before Festus, states: "if then I am a wrong doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die." Acts 25:11.

St. Thomas Aquinas finds all biblical interpretations against executions "frivolous", citing Exodus 22:18, "wrongdoers thou shalt not suffer to live". Unequivocally, he states," The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state." (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146

St. Thomas Aquinas: "The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

Saint Augustine confirms that " . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on." (On the Lord's Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas finds that " . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore." (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

St. Thomas Aquinas: "If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgement. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted." Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.


"Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars"
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-support-modern-catholic.html


Christianity and the death penalty
http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/DP.html#F.Christianity


Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/10/12/catholic-and-other-christian-references-support-for-the-death-penalty.aspx
Dudley Sharp | 5/11/2012 - 5:01pm
The 139 "innocents" sent to death row is a well known anti death penalty deception, as are the numbers, from the beginning of that particular campaign. This deception has been uncovered, by multiple and well knoiwn sources for about 12 years, with the revelation that from 70-80% of the innocence claims are without merit. The real numbers are in the 25-40 range, or about 0.4% of those so sentenced (1).


The evidence shows that innocents are better protected by the death penalty, which provides a better defense of society (1).


Whether in England or in other countries, it appears that the majority of all coutries support the death penalty for some crimes (2).


Why? Justice.


This is all well known by anyone serious about this debate.


1)  a. The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2012/03/death-penalty-saving-more-innocent.html


     b. Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2012/03/innocents-more-at-risk-without-death.html


2)  US Death Penalty Support at 80%; World Support Remains High
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2012/04/us-death-penalty-support-at-80-world.html
Dudley Sharp | 5/11/2012 - 4:51pm












Dear Ms. Schultz:


I suggest you fact check. Fact checking and challenge, to my facts, are all welcome. Sincerely, Dudley Sharp


" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category." "Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean." (1)


The parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a DMW case victim.


"I wouldn't have had as much trouble with (Prejean's) views if she would have told the truth . . ." " . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her." " . . . she's trying to mislead people in the book. And that's something that she's going have to work out with herself." "(Sr. Prejean's) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul." (2)


Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, another DMW case.


Both from and more details within


"Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/05/04/sister-helen-prejean-the-death-penalty-a-critical-review.aspx











Winifred Holloway | 5/10/2012 - 6:51pm
I marvel and am humbled by people like Sister Helen who are able to stay with an issue that is unpopular, to keep shining a light on it and to keep challenging our comfortable ways of being Christian. She walks the talk and has hung in there and for that I admire her courage, her consistency and her witness.
ed gleason | 5/10/2012 - 1:22pm
Great interview.. We hope Ca will lead the way. Years ago Sr. Helen came to San Francisco to talk in the basement of an inner city Catholic Church run by Paulists. . Marvelous talk but the audience was made up almost entirely of anti-death penalty secular people from Berkeley. Few Catholics in a Catholic Church. . No Catholic publicity. If I did not get a Pax Christi email we would not have known.
I laugh when the MSM and Fox paints San Francisco as a bastion of liberalism without noting that the very conservative remnant is  Catholic.  
Dudley Sharp | 5/11/2012 - 6:14pm
Dear Ms. Schultz:

I suggest you fact check. Fact checking and challenge, to my facts, are all welcome. Sincerely, Dudley Sharp

'' . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category.'' ''Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean.'' (1)

The parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a DMW case victim.

''I wouldn't have had as much trouble with (Prejean's) views if she would have told the truth . . .'' '' . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her.'' '' . . . she's trying to mislead people in the book. And that's something that she's going have to work out with herself.'' ''(Sr. Prejean's) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul.'' (2)

Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, another DMW case.

Both from and more details within

''Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review''
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/05/04/sister-helen-prejean-the-death-penalty-a-critical-review.aspx
Dudley Sharp | 5/17/2012 - 5:35pm
Did you notice, not one word about murder victims?


All too common.
Compassion.