Acclaimed death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean sat down with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie on Monday to discuss her new spiritual memoir River of Fire as part of Georgetown’s Faith and Culture Series.
Credited with sparking the national debate on capital punishment, Prejean became a household name with the publication of her 1993 book Dead Man Walking, which chronicles her experiences accompanying two men to death row.
Prejean and Elie were joined by Cheryllyn Branche, a Louisiana educator and a descendant of the more than 270 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838.
Changing Spiritual Tides
Prejean was not always set on a spiritual path toward social justice activism.
“I never dreamed that I’d be going to death row,” Prejean said. “The waking up – that’s what I try to talk about in River of Fire – that grace wakes us up. And for a long time I resisted that dimension of social justice.”
By interacting more and more with people outside of her religious community, Prejean came to confront her own racial and socioeconomic privilege.
“I was almost like in a double cocoon, and one was my spirituality, where I thought what you did was you prayed for people,” Prejean recalled. “And the second cocoon that I had to break out of was white privilege and just privilege period, of growing up in a family where my father was a lawyer and I went to excellent schools.”
Prejean illustrated the shift by quoting a Spanish proverb that roughly translates to:
What the eye does not see, the heart cannot feel.
As a lifelong Catholic, she has experienced major changes in her religious order and the broader Church sparked by Vatican II. The council’s work initiated a movement from the traditional emphasis on prayer toward more active social engagement with the outside world.
Moving to the Projects
Prejean credits the beginning of her work as a social justice activist to a singular line in a 1980 speech by Sister Marie Augusta Neal, a longtime sociologist at Emmanuel College in Boston.
“She said, ‘Integral to good news to people who are poor: it’s not God’s will for them to be poor, and they have a right to struggle for what is rightfully theirs,’” Prejean recalled.
The speech led Prejean to leave a stable life within her religious community to work at an assistance program in the St. Thomas Housing Project, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in New Orleans.
When I got to St. Thomas, and I saw what people were up against, I went, ‘I’m not virtuous, I’m just protected and cushioned.’ And it woke me up.
It was there that African-American community members awakened Prejean to the struggles of urban poverty—an entirely new world less than a mile from her motherhouse.
Prisons of Injustice
One of the people Prejean met in Louisiana was Branche, who attends the same Catholic parish that the author does. Branche is also president of the GU272 Descendants Association.
She talked about how her work advocating for racial justice has expanded after learning about the Jesuit role in the enslavement of her ancestors.
Prejean and Branche also reflected on the way their respective histories led them to identify the undercurrents of systemic racism and poverty in American society, which too often contribute to the disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color.
“I really feel that this conversation is one that we need to have,” Branche said, addressing the audience, “not just Sister [Prejean] and I, or Sister [Prejean] and you, but you with other people.”
Waking People Up
Awareness of these structural inequalities is what led Prejean to view the death penalty as immoral, inspiring her advocacy work for the last 30-plus years.
Where is the dignity in taking a human being, rendering him completely defenseless and killing him?
Despite finding cause for concern in the U.S. Department of Justice’s plans to resume capital punishment, Prejean remains optimistic.
“How do the people awaken? You bring the reality to them and through story and through giving people information … you can see people change because we’re people with good hearts,” she said.