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.