Faith must be lived and shared.
Spoken fervently and affectionately in a Louisianan twang, that was the alpha
and omega idea of a stirring presentation by renowned author and spiritual
guide Sister Helen Prejean Monday in the city.
Prejean is best known as the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account
of the Death Penalty in the United States, which became an Academy Award
winning film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in 1995. Prejean is a
leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
Prejean agreed to be the spiritual adviser to convicted killers Patrick Sonnier
and Robert Lee Willie in the 1980s — coming to realize that neither man was
“the sum total of the worst thing they had ever done,” but were instead capable
of faith, honesty and redemption. Both died on the electric chair.
Prejean said after witnessing Sonnier’s death in 1984 she first vomited, then
she resolved to fight for the abolition of the death penalty in the United
States. She has not relented from that commitment since.
Speaking to a gathering of hundreds of Wellington District Catholic School
Board teachers and staff members assembled for the annual Spiritual Development
Day, Prejean’s eloquent and moving stories of the death row inmates she
befriended, prayed with, and walked with to their deaths, garnered tears,
laughs, gasps, and a standing ovation.
Prejean, 73, is a nun, devoted to a life of spiritual service — a life of
living the example set by Jesus Christ. But for the first years of her life as
a nun, she freely admitted, she was asleep spiritually, unmoved by grace,
unmoved by the suffering of the poor and oppressed.
“I was not awake, and when you’re not awake, you’re not awake,” she said. We
cannot enlighten ourselves, she said. We must be graced with enlightenment.
A person of faith, she said, is in a constant state of self-questioning,
because faith is a moving, changing reality. And, she said jokingly, “God is
sneaky, sneaky, sneaky.” There is no telling when the spark of grace will
enter, or the path of service it will take you down.
“What more could I do? How can I go deeper? How could I be happier?” she said.
“There is all of this questioning of the spirit. Will I ever know Jesus, really
know Him and live the Gospel of Jesus before I die?”
These, she said, are the endless questions of a life of faith, and there is
great value in sharing this search, and these questions with others in our
faith communities, because all ask the same questions and all are together in
the same search.
“Search is just part of being human,” she said. “And when we come together in
groups like this, we blow on the coals of our faith and stir to flame, as St.
Paul says, the gift of God.”
In her early days as a nun, Prejean knew 3 chords on a guitar. She brought the
entire crowd to laughter when she mimicked her butchery of the Bob Dylan song
Blowing in the Wind. But that, she said, was as close as she came to the civil
She grew up in the south, where the segregation of blacks and whites was a
cultural phenomenon that few questioned. Culture is a very strong force in
people’s lives, she said.
When her faith was awakened, only then did she question the racism of the south
— only then did she truly see that 50 per cent of the population of Baton
Rouge, where she grew up, were poor people. And only then did she embrace
Christ’s urging that His followers must be “on the side of the poor.”
Inspired by a talk by a fellow nun, she suddenly woke up spiritually,
attributing her renewal of faith, and her resolve to serve the poor and
condemned wholeheartedly, to the infusion of grace that entered her heart when
it was open.
That moment grace changed the “spiritual trajectory” of her life. She was soon
steered into a challenging service as a friend to criminals condemned to death
— service that would test her faith and change her life. She became an
In America, and increasingly in Canada, Prejean said, we deal with our poor by
putting them in prison. North America’s “tough on crime” policies have been
particularly tough on the underprivileged and the young.
Such policies are not true to the gospels of Jesus, she indicated, but are
often justified with Old Testament teachings. Once during a radio talk show, a
caller challenged Prejean’s stance on capital punishment by quoting “an eye for
an eye” from the Hebrew Bible. She countered by saying the Old Testament also
calls for death by stoning for adultery. Did the caller want that enforced as
The idea of retribution, of getting even, runs deep in the human psyche, she
indicated. Jesus abrogated such practices and called for mercy and forgiveness
in their place. The death penalty would be abolished in the U.S. if the
teachings of Christ were truly followed. Instead “the Bible-belt is the
death-belt” in the southern states.
“There is a great need for Biblical literacy,” she said, pointing out that a
recent study showed that 10 per cent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was
Don Drone, director of education for the Wellington District Catholic School
Board, said the power of Prejean’s presentation resided in the stories she told
and was rooted in her firsthand experience with death-row prisoners.
The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, and how those related to the life
of Jesus, he said, where central subjects of discussion at Spiritual
Development Day. He found Prejean’s ideas about being courageous in faith
“As humans we have all experienced not stepping up when we should have,” Drone
said. “We try to do that by way of social justice, and obviously by talking to
students about doing the right thing.”
(source: Guelph Mercury)