Q&A ‘The Nun Was in over Her Head’

By Daniel Brumbach | March 12, 2019

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Arcadia’s Common Read selection Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, visited campus during Inauguration Week to discuss her work as a spiritual adviser to death row inmates, a storyteller and public speaker, and a fierce supporter of the Catholic Church’s opposition to
state executions.

Before addressing a packed house of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, Sister Helen sat down with English major Jess Derr ’20 to talk about her journey—from a nun “in over her head” to a nationally recognized advocate for the abolition of capital punishment.

Q. What led you to the Catholic Church?

A. I grew up Catholic, and I had great nuns who taught me that your spiritual life or faith can be at the heart of everything that you do. When you’re in church all the time, you can fall into a trap where you don’t apply faith to your life. The Catholic Church could get hung up on “correct doctrines” and be oblivious to social problems. I joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph at 18, and I knew I wanted to participate in the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, which opened the windows and said, “Look at the suffering, world. Get involved.” Nobody did that more than the Catholic nuns. In fact, I just finished a memoir [River of Fire] about that journey: joining the Sisters, the Vatican II changes, getting involved in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, and eventually getting the invitation to write to a man on death row. It changed my life.

Q. So, in the beginning, your work wasn’t cemented in social justice?

A. No, I had to wake up to that. It took a while. I was in my 40s. I was working in suburbs and in parishes with people who, if not affluent, were middle class. I had to accept the deeper invitation of Christianity to get involved.

Q. In Dead Man Walking, you write that you were wary about casting your faith alongside politics. Did you have any idea how drastically this would change when you wrote to your first advisee, Pat Sonnier?

A. Are you kidding me? I thought I was only going to be writing letters. Louisiana hadn’t had an execution in a long time, and they were gearing up to get started again. I didn’t know. Then suddenly, I’m with him when he’s executed. Tim Robbins [director of Dead Man Walking’s film adaptation] liked to say, “The nun was in over her head,” and it’s so true! I knew nothing.

If society is safer because we have prisons, why are we imitating the violence by killing prisoners?

– Sister Helen Prejean

Q. Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently?

A. I probably would do the same thing, which is to let things unfold. You put your boat in a little current, and you’re paddling along until all of a sudden the rapids start. But you want to be true to what you’ve started. I’d written to Pat, I’d promised to visit him. And I learned what a great gift that can be to a human being that everyone else thinks of as disposable human waste, vermin, a monster. I got to see his dignity. That was invaluable.

Q. I imagine getting to know someone in that way, then watching them die, is terrible.

A. You know what was the hardest? Where I made the biggest mistake? It was with the victims’ families. The prosecutors gear the victims’ families to believe anyone against the execution is against you. They put you on a seesaw—you’re one way or another. I didn’t know what to do with their families. I knew they were angry, so I thought it’d be better leave them alone.

It was the father of David LeBlanc, one of Pat’s victims, who asked, “Sister, why haven’t you come to see us?” He was the gracious one that invited me to pray with him and led me into his journey of forgiveness. He was the first one who taught me that forgiveness is a gift you have to give yourself. It’s saving your own life. Since then, I’ve met a number of victims’ families. They help me more than anything.

Q. Is forgiveness always possible?

A. It’s up to the people. Anger, in the beginning, is also important—it gets the adrenaline out so that they don’t fall deeper into despair. Everybody goes through a different journey, but I know this: I’m the last one to give them advice. I haven’t had anybody in my life killed. I’ve noticed that those who have people to support them move on with their lives faster. Forgiveness does not mean you’re condoning the action. It’s not letting that anger consume you.

Q. What was your biggest takeaway from working with death row inmates?

A. First, how privileged, cushioned, and protected I had been in my life. The inmates all came from hard childhoods, poverty, broken homes. They did not feel loved. They were restless—often they did drugs or alcohol and were violent. I saw a pattern, and looked at my own life: It’s not that I’m virtuous, it’s that I’d been protected.

When Dead Man Walking came out in 1993, I learned that 80 percent of people in America supported the death penalty. Most people don’t think deeply about the death penalty. They have no reason to—they don’t have a family member who was murdered. I knew I had to bring people close to the issue. I tell stories so people can reflect on whether it really helps a victim’s family to watch the state kill the person that killed their loved one. When they watch violence, is that supposed to heal them? If society is safer because we have prisons, why are we imitating the violence by killing prisoners?

Q. I imagine you face a lot of backlash. What keeps you going?

A. There is a man named Manuel Ortiz, from El Salvador, who I’m accompanying on death row in Louisiana right now. He’s the third innocent inmate I’ve been with out of seven. Twenty-four years sitting in a cell, and he’s maintained his courage, faith, and who he is. In an extraordinary situation where most people would break, he’s not broken. We talk, we laugh, we pray. What I come away with is courage. That’s what keeps me going.

Q. How can a college student get involved with similar social justice projects?

A. How many people do you have on death row here? See, you don’t know. Start looking into Pennsylvania. Get in touch with human rights groups that are working to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania, or groups that help the wrongfully convicted. Consider being a pen pal to somebody on death row—that’s how I started.