“I grew up in a New Orleans home where the only people of color were the servants,” Sister Helen Prejean admitted to the crowd of some 500 at St. Celia’s parish in Boston last night. “My spiritual journey opened like a flower, one petal at a time.”
My 15-year-old son, Seamus, had suggested we attend the talk because his priest, Father John Unni, had made clear that hearing Sister Prejean would change his life.
Prejean described being called to give her life to faith, finding herself moving into a poor New Orleans neighborhood to be “taught by people of color,” casually signing up to be a pen pal to a death-row inmate while there was still a nationwide moratorium, finding herself moved to want to visit her pen pal, needing to declare herself his spiritual adviser to be allowed to visit. And finding herself the last one in the cell with a man about to be killed by the state, walking with her hand on his back as he shuffled to his death.
“Watching a man be put to death in the electric chair is not the same as witnessing a loved one pass on of natural causes,” she said. “One minute he is alive like you and me, and the next he’s dead, his flesh and organs burned.”
Prejean made clear that her journey was not a self-determined one. She followed her God the best she could, one step at a time. If at the beginning of her path she had known where she’d end up, “there is no way I could have done it,” she said. But at the moment of truth, when she needed to be strong, to be the face of God for a repentant soul, she found strength despite the horror of the experience. On the ride home that night she had to ask the sisters to pull the car over so she could throw up.
“There is a peace when you are going in the right direction,” she told the crowd. And not doing so, she explained, follows you into the shower, causing great agitation.
Prejean feared meeting her pen pal in person, despite being separated by a huge amount of security and, between them, thick metal fencing. “What I saw the first moment he sat down was the face of God,” she said. All her fears left the moment he saw him.
This experience echoed my own experience visiting men serving life sentences inside Sing Sing. My terror was palpable all the way up to the moment I sat down in a room somewhere in the bowels of the notorious prison. A convicted murderer touched my shoulder, asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, and told me how glad he was that I had come. What I heard inspired me not because it in any way diminished the crimes of the men in the room, but because it made clear how those men were trying to turn their profound suffering—and that of their victims’ families—into something meaningful and good.
Prejean admitted that her biggest mistake, made out of weakness on her part, was not talking to the victims’ families right away. She made clear that in her view violent crimes put us all on both arms of the cross: on one side, the victims’ families; on the other, the perpetrators and their families. In recent years she has spent a lot of time with the families of murderers and victims, trying to understand more deeply their anguish and suffering. “No one wants to talk to them. We can’t handle pain of that magnitude in our society.”
Her message in a nutshell: how to stop the cycle of violence and her belief that forgiveness is not weak but requires spiritual transformation. She spoke eloquently about praying with the first family member who lost a loved one in the Oklahoma City bombings. This man would later say that killing Timothy McVeigh would in no way honor the loss of his daughter.
She also made plain the horror of being present for the state-sponsored executions, committed in the dark of night with machine-like efficiency while the media were fed sandwiches in an adjoining room.
“Eighty percent of the executions in this country are committed in the original 10 confederate states in retaliation for the murder of white people,” she pointed out. “No one cares if a person of color is killed, even though it happens all the time in places like New Orleans.”
As we left the church, Seamus quoted parts of her lecture. Then he went silent, deep in thought. I am not sure Father John was right that the talk had changed my son’s life. But it made one hell of an impact.