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Interview: Sister Helen Prejean On Her New Memoir, ‘River Of Fire’

Mark Humphrey
Sister Helen Prejean, famous for her work with death row inmates, speaks at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in 2015.

In her first book, “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean shares the story of her work as a spiritual advisor to a death row inmate and how that ministry led to her advocacy to end the death penalty. Now Sister Helen has a new memoir that explains how her spiritual development led her to that death chamber where she bore witness to an execution. The book is called “River of Fire.”  

Sister Helen spoke with WSHU’s All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner about her new book. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

What sparked you to pursue a spiritual life?

Well, I was taught by great nuns in high school. And they were faith-filled women. They were great teachers. They were human, and they were humorous. And I said, "I can do that." So at 18, I set out to become a nun. And I take people in “River of Fire” to how it was as it was as a nun before Vatican II ecumenical council happened in the Catholic Church. And it was really like going back in time. You didn’t have to make any more decisions. It was just obedience to superiors. You were away from the world. And then Vatican II happened in the Catholic Church, where Pope John XXIII said the Catholic Church needs to open up the doors and windows and relate to the modern world. And no one took that more seriously than nuns. And so then I was part of that change that grabbed me, gradually led me into social justice of the gospel, led me into an inner city housing community where I began to work amongst struggling African Americans and from there got an invitation to right a man on death row and everything changed after that. 

Going back to before Vatican II, did you find joy in your early life as a nun, given the strict role that nuns had to play?

You know what? The joy came from a spiritual life and a connection and a closeness to God in prayer. But I also began to realize that the life was, you’re supposed to be friends with everybody but not close to anybody. And I sorted out by the novitiate years that I wasn’t going to make it as a human being without friendships. And of course Vatican II set us free to be individuals. For the first time the Catholic Church endorsed that individuals had a conscience that you could follow. And so selfhood began to develop. It was obedience, not simply to whatever a superior said, but discerning where the spirit was leading you and what need you saw in the world that you could follow. So I grew out of it. It never would have been enough to last my whole life if Vatican II hadn’t happened. You can’t be friends with everybody without being close. I develop that in the book about intimacy, and closeness and friendship. And in the community see, the sisterhood, I dedicate “River of Fire” to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, my community, because I did all of my growing up with them, of learning how to have a plan and a goal, a desire. But then, practically, how to put it into operation. Before I was grounded in justice, the saying in the community about me was, "There goes Helen again with one of her half-baked ideas. Feet planted firmly in midair." But the community helped me to become real. You can’t make any quest for social justice without community under you. 

You have said that one of the "cocoons" you had to break out of after Vatican II was how isolated you were from systemic racism due to your white privilege. How did you come to that realization?

I was around 40 when I woke up to a lot of this stuff. First of all it’s a connection that the gospel of Jesus was about more than just being charitable to all the people around you. And that was for me, I was always in the suburbs. I was always around other white people, most of whom had education and so forth. But when I woke up to the gospel of Jesus, as Pope Francis says it, that the Church is supposed to be a field hospital out where the wounded and struggling people are. And I woke up to that dimension of the gospel and I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans. Ten major African American housing projects in New Orleans, and I’d never been to any of them. But now that I’m on this little current in the river that it’s about justice and you have to understand about systemic change. You have to see what people are suffering. And for the first time in my life, the African American people began to educate me. I never heard the term “white privilege.” I never heard that simply by being white I could go anyplace. I would never have people look at me funny or throw me out. And so I began to learn.

And that’s when I learned about racism, and it helped me as I was writing “River of Fire,” to reflect on when I grew up in the Jim Crow day in Baton Rouge. My daddy was a successful lawyer. And we had an African American couple that lived in the servants’ quarters on the property, we lived in the big house. Didn’t even know their last names. Ellen worked in the house. Jessie in the yard. Mom and Daddy were kind to them. But now when I look back about what Jim Crow means to families that were traveling and couldn’t even stop at a restaurant or gas station. And here’s the thing. I tie my book to take people with me about waking up. And when we’re not awake, we’re not awake. And it’s not that my mom and daddy were bad, nor was I a bad person. But we simply weren’t awake because we weren’t exposed to things outside our little cocoon or our circle. So I hope by writing, “River of Fire,” as I wake up to things, other people can come with me. And then I move from this private practice of religion and being close to Christ to one of a public life and getting engaged and rolling up my sleeves and becoming a citizen involved in the democratic process of working for change.   

Is the church evolving in its vision for women’s role in the church?

Gradually and slowly. You know the book ends with my letter to Pope Francis, about the need for women to be an integral part of policy making and decision making in the Catholic Church. That when you have all males involved all the time in the discussions and policy making and decisions, it’s not healthy. And the way it is in the Catholic Church now, we do not healthy priesthood. We have this all-male group, and as we’ve seen from some of the abuses that have happened, that’s simply not healthy. 

And without women’s participation in the life of the church, women’s wisdom, from the ground up, practical experience, we’re never going to be a healthy church. So yes the bubbles, as I put it, begin to come up in the pot. Change takes a long time, but more and more, if the Church can be attentive, now I’m talking about the institutional church, the power of the gospel is in people and in groups. So you have more and more young girls, saying to their mothers as they get older, I’m not going to church there. You never see women as priests or as spiritual leaders of the community. So they look at the diminishment that’s happening, in just the dropout of women who are not going to participate in a church that has sexist practices. That’s one side of it.

And then you have this dialogue that’s rising up. Just like it did on the death penalty in the Catholic Church. And my approach to my church, and as well as my country, a lot of bad things are happening in this country at this time, is that when you love a family, when you love your country, when you love a church, your eyes have seen things and you’ve come to realize things. You stay in the dialogue and you work for change where you are. That’s what I’ve done on the death penalty. When “Dead Man Walking” came out in ’93, Bill, 80% of the American public supported the death penalty. Now we see state after state shutting it down. So the practice is really diminished, and we’re on our way to ending the death penalty. But that’s dialogue. That’s educating people, who are not bad people. But they simply had no idea that we were going to make all these mistakes. We thought we had the best court system in the world. We thought, well people that did those terrible crimes had deserved to die. We didn’t know. We had to learn. We grow as a society. We always grow in community with each other.   

Are you concerned that the Trump administration has reinstated the federal death penalty, which had been suspended for 16 years?  

Absolutely. That is the way the Trump administration operates. Their first response is a violent response to things, in their language towards people, their demonizing of people. The name calling towards people. Even the separation of children from parents. That’s a very violent thing to do to children. So it does not surprise me that the Trump administration would want to activate the death penalty. It just shows how arbitrary the death penalty is in practice. You get a Trump administration, they’re all for let’s get in there and kill. They want to kill five people by the end of December. Whereas in the Obama administration, Eric Holder who was the attorney general, not so much. And we see that all across the United States. One DA in a county is going to go for the death penalty, and the other isn’t. That is not equal justice under law. And it’s one of the reasons why, eventually, we’re going to find the death penalty unconstitutional.   

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.