Every morning, my daughter and I stand in front of her dresser mirror, and we read “She counts 112 blessings every day” from a piece of artwork in her room. Then, starting with the top her head, we count her crown, forehead, eyes, down her face and end at 15 with her heart. Every day, I end it with “And your heart is your biggest blessing.” My hope is that kindness, if nothing else, will be her mark on the world.
As I begin this series of Raising a Baby Activist interviews, I can think of no better way than with the key element of compassion. If you haven’t heard of Sister Helen Prejean, perhaps you have seen the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, based on her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. For me, her work is the epitome of human compassion and dignity.
With a third book soon to be released, Sister Helen is on the road spreading her message, encouraging people to educate themselves on the issues around this controversial topic. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with her communications manager, Griffin Hardy, to learn about her journey, work and mission.
Born in 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sister Helen’s father was an attorney, and her upbringing was one of privilege. They had servants in their home, not unusual for families of certain means during that time. When she was 18, she became a Catholic nun. In the 1950s, nuns wore habits, Mass was said in Latin, and the sisters received male names. Their work was assigned within the church confines. Sister Helen taught middle school English and was a religious education director.
With the liberalization and modernization of the Catholic church known as Vatican 2, nun habits were abandoned, original names restored and, much to Sister Helen’s dismay at the time, roles changed to working out in the service of the community at large. Her response to this was “we are nuns, not social workers!” Indeed, she was resistant to these changes from the traditional, but these changes led her into a whole new world, and her life’s work.
New Life Experiences
In the early 1980s, Sister Helen attended a retreat with her religious community, where the presenter, a sociologist named Sister Mary Augusta Neal, addressed the Gospel of Jesus, Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,” New International Version (NIV),
presenting that idea that the Good News is that the poor will be poor no longer. This was a defining moment in her life as she realized the need for human compassion among all people. She moved to a housing project in New Orleans, where she dedicated her life to working with and helping the poor and underserved.
She was living in low-income community that was 100% African-American. She realized that those folks who served her home as a child were only familiar to her on a first-name basis. Her new neighbors were providing her with a new perspective into the “other America”, and woke her up to a new way of seeing all people as she learned about them and their different life experiences.
Her work in this community involved improving literacy, and working with a prison coalition. The director of the coalition asked if the sisters would write letters to Death Row inmates. That is how she came to know, and become spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killers of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Pat Sonnier’s case was the one that involved his brother, Eddie, testifying against him in exchange for a life sentence. Eddie died in 2013 and Sister Helen had continued to visit him on a regular basis in the years since Pat’s execution in 1984.
Looking back on this connection with Sonnier, Sister Helen jokes, “The problem wasn’t writing to him. It was that he wrote back!” And so, this pen pal began to reveal himself to her, then asked her to visit him. She made the 3-hour journey to the Louisiana/Mississippi border to the death row facility where he was being held. There is not much information to prepare one for this experience as much information about facilities of this nature is deliberately kept secret. This was a completely foreign experience for Sister Helen, and one that proved to be an enormous light bulb moment. She spent several years as Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, helped him secure a new lawyer and was present at his execution.
Activist Life Lessons
“People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life.”
- There have always been light bulb moments and the reveal of new perspectives for this humble and amazing woman. When she met Sonnier, she saw a human being. Her service means being present with people where they are. It means having empathy and reinforcing human dignity. There is more to these people, who many view as nothing but monsters. That is the bottom line.
- A regret that Sister Helen in the case of her role in Patrick Sonnier’s life was that she didn’t connect with the families of his victims until they happened to meet at a parole hearing. They are not on the opposite side of this, and she doesn’t have to choose a side to be present with people.
- Human dignity is not only prisoners, but everybody. Developing, reinforcing and applying general awareness daily.
How to be an Activist
“Ignited passion can happen at any age.” We are so often paralyzed by the injustice of a situation. Once you’ve made that realization, do something. If Sister Helen can accomplish coming to this understanding at 40, imagine what young people can do. The sooner you start, the easier it is to apply human dignity to your work daily and effectively. There are different levels of commitment, but every person has the ability to do something.
- Write a letter
- Contact an elected official
- Attend a march or rally
The sooner you start, the easier it is to apply human dignity to your work daily and effectively.
The Death Penalty
For a very long time, the political framework of the death penalty put all parties on the wrong side. As time has gone on, everything from subjective faith-based beliefs to financial concerns. Democrats added abolition of it to their platform in 2016.
It is a widely held belief that it is more cost-effective to put an inmate to death than to sentence them to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. That is not the case. The counterintuitive Truth is that it costs more to house and kill a death row inmate. Though Republicans may not publicly oppose it, Democrats and Republicans have formed a coalition on this important social issue, for independent reasons. Even the very Republican Koch Brothers are in support of Social Justice Reform!
Most people don’t know much about the death penalty because a lot of information about the process is kept secret. That’s the only way that the death penalty continues to be propped up. It would be very difficult to defend the idea of taking a defenseless person, shackling them, marching them into a room, putting them on a table, and pumping them full of poison. It’s the most premeditated of killings. It’s the most premeditated of killings. Rather than defend the indefensible, our governments do all they can to hide the realities of capital punishment. Laws have been passed to hide just about everything about the process. We know more about how veterinarians euthanize pets than about how our government kills human beings. -Griffin Hardy
Sister Helen has 35 years in her line of work with Death Row inmates and her work in under-served communities. She was present for 5 more Death Row executions. She is the public face of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, and is currently spiritual advisor to 2 Death Row inmates and also works with the families involved. She is releasing a new book in the fall, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.
As Ella & I count her heart as her biggest blessing each day, my hope is that she is inspired by the work of activists like Sister Helen Prejean, whose heart is surely her biggest blessing.
My deepest gratitude goes to Griffin Hardy for taking the time to talk with me about this crucial issue in our American society. The work of the Ministry, and all its staff, are instrumental to the education around all of the complexities of the death penalty. I’m certainly inspired and more informed now. I hope that you are as well.
To donate, purchase her books and support the continued work of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, please go to https://www.sisterhelen.org/ .