Sister Helen Prejean

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    i'll alert the pope.

    i'm sure he'll be thrilled
     
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    Sister Prejean? Wasn't she the Nun who was suckered in to supporting a psycho who killed two innocent teenagers in NO and wrote a book about it? Catholics are good people who sometimes support causes that they need to reconsider.
     
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    People ask me all the time, "What are you, a nun, doing getting involved with these murderers?" You know how people have these stereotypical ideas about nuns: nuns teach; nuns nurse the sick.

    I tell people to go back to the gospel. Look at who Jesus hung out with: lepers, prostitutes, thieves—the throwaways of his day. If we call ourselves Jesus' disciples, we too have to keep ministering to the marginated, the throwaways, the lepers of today. And there are no more marginated, thrown-away, and leprous people in our society than death-row inmates.

    There's a lot of what I call "biblical quarterbacking" going on in death-penalty debates: people toss in quotes from the Bible to back up what they've already decided anyway. People want to not only practice vengeance but also have God agree with them. The same thing happened in this country in the slavery debates and in the debates over women's suffrage.

    Religion is tricky business. Quote that Bible. God said torture. God said kill. God said get even.

    Even the Pauline injunction "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay" (Rom. 12:19) can be interpreted as a command and a promise—the command to restrain individual impulses toward revenge in exchange for the assurance that God will be only too pleased to handle the grievance in spades.

    That God wants to "get even" like the rest of us does not seem to be in question.

    One intractable problem, however, is that divine vengeance (barring natural disasters, so-called acts of God) can only be interpreted and exacted by human beings, very human beings.

    I can't accept that.

    I have watched people like Marietta Jaeger of the group Murder Victims for Reconciliation or Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of Patrick Sonnier's victims. Although they have been through a white-hot fire of loss and violence, they have been healed by God's grace and been able to overcome their desire for revenge. They are incredible human beings with great courage, and to me they are living witnesses of the gospel and the incredible healing power of Jesus in the midst of violence.


    Sister Helen Prejean

    Would Jesus pull the switch? by Sister Helen Prejean
     
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    Where were the poor today? As she considered the challenge of the gospel, Sister Helen's comfortable, private spirituality was shaken to the core. Within a year she had moved in with Sisters who were serving in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans.

    It was there that she naively agreed to become pen pal to a man on Death Row. When he asked her to come visit, she went and visited. Her eyes were opened to the process by which the state executes the condemned--which she abhors as patently cruel and unfair. She had to tell her story to anyone who would hear. "Witnessing his death [April 5, 1984] was a second Baptism for me," she wrote last year. "I couldn't watch someone being killed and walk away. Like a sacrament, the execution left an indelible mark on my soul."

    Along the way, she encountered the devastated families of murder victims. They called her to task for caring more about the murderers than about the victims' families. She used her organizing skills to found Survive, a victims' family support group in New Orleans. "To me the image for the Church is to be on both arms of the cross," she told St. Anthony Messenger in 1991, "with the ones being executed and with the victims' families."

    A dying man is alone, except for the love of a Catholic sister. He is a castaway, considered untouchable and worthy of death by his society. The nun comforts him and says, "I can't bear the thought that you would die without seeing one loving face. I will be the face of Christ for you." She is Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille. He is one of four convicted of murder whom she has accompanied to the death chamber in Louisiana.
    You could call her the Mother Teresa of Death Row. She would argue the point. "I kind of speed a lot and get tickets," Sister Helen admits, and she is an outspoken critic of politicians and the legal system. She likes to argue. She cracks jokes. She doesn't wear a habit. But she has a heart big enough for everyone: She counsels and prays the rosary with victims' families. She looks after the needs of convicts' families. And she never knew what she was getting into when she made a simple decision, in her 40's, to dedicate her life to the poor.

    When Sister Helen wrote her life experiences into a book a few years ago, she could scarcely imagine that it would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and become the basis of a major motion picture. But now Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States has risen to number one on The New York Times Best-Seller List and is being translated into other languages. Dead Man Walking, the film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is a contender at the Academy Awards. As this issue went to press, it was nominated for Oscars in four categories: best leading actor (Penn), best leading actress (Sarandon), best directing (Tim Robbins) and best original song ("Dead Man Walking," written and performed by Bruce Springsteen). Songs from the soundtrack are reaching the record charts.

    "It's a miracle of God!" Sister Helen exclaims as she walks into the editorial offices of St. Anthony Messenger. She has flown to Cincinnati for an advance showing of the film to benefit her congregation. The day before in Chicago she taped an appearance--with Susan Sarandon and producer Tim Robbins--on The Oprah Winfrey Show. That night her prerecorded interview from Louisiana's death chamber would appear on ABC's Prime Time Live. ABC's Good Morning America viewers would see her the next morning.

    As she settles in for this interview, she jokingly exhales an expression that only a real Sister would use. When asked, "How are you?" she replies, "I'm riding the kairos." That Greek word from the New Testament (see Ephesians 1:10) means "the right time," the time when God's saving acts are breaking into history. She can scarcely believe what is happening, but Sister Helen is relishing the moment.


    Road to the Oscars
    Longtime readers of this magazine might remember Sister Helen's May 1991 submission, "Murderers and Victims: A Rosary Reflection." She was writing her book at the time and felt drawn to write an essay about her praying the rosary each month with Lloyd LeBlanc, father of a young murder victim. Sister Helen had been spiritual adviser to the man convicted of the murder. She witnessed his execution. Sister Helen and a victim's father praying together became the closing scene in Dead Man Walking. The real Sister Helen still drives across Louisiana's swampland on the first Friday of each month to pray with LeBlanc.

    When she was working with screenwriter, director and producer Tim Robbins on the script for the movie, Sister Helen had her doubts about how well the praying scene would work in a secular movie. "How are you going to do that without it looking hokey?" she asked Robbins, whose recent credits include the highly acclaimed films Shawshank Redemption and The Player. "He says, 'You're the nun and you're telling me we can't end this thing with prayer?'" Robbins won, she adds, "and you see the characters moving to another level where the reconciliation and peace is going to lie. It is so powerful. It is so powerful!" The scene is one of her favorites.

    But that's getting ahead of the story. The road to the Oscars began when actress Susan Sarandon read Sister Helen's book and saw herself playing the role (see sidebar below). In recent years Sarandon has received three Best Actress Academy Award nominations for Thelma and Louise, Lorenzo's Oil and The Client. She gave a copy of the book to Tim Robbins and persuaded him to create a film--if Sister Helen would allow it.

    "We were up against tremendous obstacles," says Sister Helen. After her 1993 book proved a critical success her congregation signed a film option, but no film was forthcoming. That producer had given up hope after being rejected by major Hollywood distributors whose money would be essential.

    Sister Helen and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille were leery of allowing just anyone to do this movie, too, considering Hollywood's track record with nuns. "We've had the flying nun, the singing nun--it's either the flaky stuff or nuns who are leaving," she complains. She and her congregation wanted a realistic portrayal of a contemporary Sister in ministry.

    Robbins and Sarandon convinced her that the film would be true to the book--although it would be necessary to create some composite characters to simplify the story enough for a two-hour movie. Sister Helen met with Sarandon and liked her. "I had to be absolutely sure these people were trustworthy," she says. "Meeting Susan, I knew that she was. And as I began to learn about her life, what she stood up for, I knew that she stuck her neck out for things that she believed in.

    "I sent Tim a book, Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, and we talked about it. I said, 'Good sign! He reads! And he reflects!' I didn't know whether or not he was a good filmmaker, but I liked his values."

    As they discussed their vision for what the film could be, Sister Helen knew she had found kindred spirits. "He started talking like, 'How can we do a film about this thing that people are going to come to? How can we frame this thing in such a way that we can probe Christianity without being preachy?' I liked that," she says.

    But the most telling moment came in a conversation with Robbins and his agent. The agent suggested that the film would make a great "made-for-TV movie," says Sister Helen. Robbins interrupted him, complaining that commercials would spoil the moment. Sister Helen remembers, "He said, 'But a feature film will bring them into a darkened place where they can have a sustained meditation'--I like this person! He's deep and he has spiritual values, he's smart and compassionate. He wants to do films about things that really matter. I said, 'Tim, you got it! Let's go!'"

    In the filmmaking agreement, Sister Helen was given script approval. Her community received $150,000 for film rights. That was in late 1994. By the turn of the year, Robbins had found partners who would invest the $12 million necessary to make the film--a low budget by Hollywood standards. He began signing up actors and crew to work for reduced rates. (Months later, he sent a rough edit of the film and a copy of the book to his favorite well-known songwriters hoping a few of them would be inspired to write music for a soundtrack. Twelve original songs came back--one of which is an Oscar nominee.)


    Writing the Script
    The next breakthrough came when Robbins successfully recruited bad-guy Sean Penn to play Matthew Poncelet, a character based on two of the men Sister Helen had counseled on Death Row. To test the moral question of execution, Robbins wanted to portray the most unredeemable character possible.

    Many people who might reject the death penalty support it for the worst criminals, says Sister Helen. Robbins wanted Sean Penn from the beginning, says Helen--"and Sean Penn is just masterful, perfect"--because Penn can portray an unsympathetic character.

    Robbins didn't want a propaganda piece, she says, but a balanced look at a controversial issue. The Hollywood approach, for dramatic reasons, might create a character unjustly condemned, or who was an obvious victim of circumstances. In Dead Man Walking, Robbins wanted to focus, Sister Helen says, on the real story: "a nun who gets in over her head, who gets involved with the poor, and gets ratcheted into a relationship with a very, very difficult kind of person to love." In fact, she says, the deepest theme of the film is unconditional love and redemption. That theme is sounded early in the film. As the prison metal detector buzzes, the camera closes in on Sister Helen's crucifix.

    Sister Helen worked closely with Robbins on the script to be sure it was right, she explains. It took five drafts, but there is nothing in the film she is uncomfortable with. In the film, and in real life, for example, Sister Helen was confronted at Louisiana State Penitentiary by an elderly priest-chaplain who challenged her for not wearing a habit. In the first script the Sister Helen character went out to her car and got a habit out of the trunk.

    "I told Tim, 'No way!'" exclaims Sister Helen. "We don't wear habits, and I had to explain to him the reasons for that." (The Sisters of St. Joseph, founded in France in 1650, were never intended to wear habits, but to blend in among the people they serve.)

    "I teased him. I said, 'Boy, you better get the nuns right in this! We haven't had a good film about nuns since The Bells of St. Mary's!'" A product of Catholic schools himself (as is Sarandon), Robbins jokingly cowered before Sister Helen's mock wrath, she recalls with a hearty laugh.

    Sister Helen talked with Robbins shortly after he learned that the film received financing. "Tim gets on the phone and says, 'Helen, we've got the money and now we've really got a problem.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Now we've got to do the picture. I'm scared!' I was glad that he was scared. Then we got started and in nine weeks he shot a half million feet--100 miles--of film." Five of those weeks were onsite in Louisiana, four weeks were on a constructed set in New York.

    Her Sisters are "overjoyed" with the final product, Sister Helen reports--and with her celebrity status. But her ex-novicemistress is watching out for her: "She asked me, 'Now Helen, you're staying humble, right? Feet on the ground?' And I said, 'Yes, Sister, I am,' because there's so much pain in it--to let any of this go to your head just doesn't make any sense."


    Smothered With Love
    Straightforward dedication and prayer drive Sister Helen, say those who know her well. She got these inner qualities from her upbringing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her father was a lawyer who taught her persuasive speaking, she recalls. And she had a "good, loving Southern mama" (a nurse). The family (she has a brother and sister, too) prayed the rosary together every night.

    The long road trips they took together were a training ground for her current life-style, she jokes: She learned how to sleep in a moving vehicle. But more important, the close quarters caused the family to find ways to be together: "We sang songs and learned how to tell stories," the consummate storyteller recalls.

    At the all-girl St. Joseph Academy in Baton Rouge, she learned public speaking, leadership and "how to punctuate a sentence....I'm realizing now the gifts I'm using. I had an excellent education," she gratefully says. Her election as student body president was an indicator of things to come.

    This big-hearted woman has a simple explanation for how she became compassionate: "I was hosed down with love by my parents. I was poured over with love and affirmation. If I don't give that back, then I'm really seriously defective. I see it as a matter of justice, not of charity. I've got to do this or--I'll explode or something."

    Her desire to love widely led her to become "a child bride of Christ at age 18," she humorously observes. "When I hit religious life," in 1957, "it was like you bit the turf. You were silent--and that was good for me, too. It interiorized me." Knowing that her tendency is to reach out constantly to others, she strives for balance: "If you don't have communication with God in your life, there's not that dynamic relationship between drawing in and reaching out. I realize now that I really have that combination within me. When I finish this work and I get on a plane, that plane is like my little cloister. I'm back to silence, back to my center, and I'm comfortable being quiet."

    When she's at the right place at the right time, she's aware of God's presence, she says. "That was very intense in the deathhouse," she recalls. In her book she described it as a "circle of light" that encompassed her and the man about to be executed. "It was that deep center: 'You're here and I'm here and this is really hard, but it's going to be O.K.'"

    But that's getting ahead of the story again. There was little indication from her early career that she would become such an outspoken justice advocate. During the first decades of Sisterhood, she had been teacher, novicemistress and parish religious educator. Then, in 1981, her congregation took a long look at its mission.

    Jean Pierre Medaille had founded a community of Sisters to minister to urgent social needs. Where were the poor today? As she considered the challenge of the gospel, Sister Helen's comfortable, private spirituality was shaken to the core. Within a year she had moved in with Sisters who were serving in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans.

    It was there that she naively agreed to become pen pal to a man on Death Row. When he asked her to come visit, she went and visited. Her eyes were opened to the process by which the state executes the condemned--which she abhors as patently cruel and unfair. She had to tell her story to anyone who would hear. "Witnessing his death [April 5, 1984] was a second Baptism for me," she wrote last year. "I couldn't watch someone being killed and walk away. Like a sacrament, the execution left an indelible mark on my soul."

    Along the way, though, as the book and film portray so well, she encountered the devastated families of murder victims. They called her to task for caring more about the murderers than about the victims' families. She used her organizing skills to found Survive, a victims' family support group in New Orleans. "To me the image for the Church is to be on both arms of the cross," she told St. Anthony Messenger in 1991, "with the ones being executed and with the victims' families."

    Sister Helen's balanced approach is captured by the film. In naming Dead Man Walking one of the top 10 films of the year, reviewers Siskel and Ebert said it is "more than a film that simply questions the need for the death penalty. It also generates empathy for the 'life penalty' that victims' families suffer too."


    The Death Penalty Considered
    The film indeed walks a fine line on a delicate issue. It is Sister Helen's contention that state executions are carried out in the middle of the night in secret for a reason: If people knew the truth about executions, they would oppose them. She openly opposes the death penalty in her book. "It's government imitating the very violence that it says we can't have in our society," she says. "Twelve people in the middle of the night, hired by the state, kill for the state." Unlike the book, the film draws no conclusions, yet reveals the secret goings-on for public consideration.

    (The title of film and book comes from the words that guards at San Quentin Prison are said to have yelled when a death-row inmate was let out of his cell: "Dead man walking!")

    Although Sister Helen had witnessed electrocutions in Louisiana, she and Robbins agreed that lethal injection would be the killing device in the film. In spite of the recently publicized firing squad in Utah and hanging elsewhere, most states are turning to lethal injection as a more humane way to execute. Robbins wanted his viewers to consider the morality of the most humane death the system offers. "We don't want to give them a way out," says Sister Helen.

    The killing devices--including the crucifix-like table from which an elevated Sean Penn says his final words--are exact replicas of execution gear from Louisiana and Missouri.

    There are currently over 3,000 people awaiting execution in the United States. Although the United States is the only Western democracy that executes people, well over 70 percent of Americans favor execution. Catholics, in spite of Church teaching that the death penalty is almost never morally acceptable in modern society, support it more than others.

    But Sister Helen is confident that abolition will come: "You've got to realize there was a time in this country when over 70 percent of people supported slavery. Who would have ever thought that we would change it?"

    Having served as chairwoman of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, she can recite every argument and statistic against state execution: It's immoral; it costs more than life imprisonment; it doesn't really work as a deterrent; it's reserved for the poor; it's racially selective; it's a political decoy; we're out of step with other nations. "Basically it's an act of despair," she says. "It's society saying we don't know what to do with some people--and when you don't know what to do with some people, it's O.K. to kill them."
    Sister Helen Prejean: The Real Woman Behind Dead Man Walking - April 1996 Issue of St. Anthony Messenger Magazine Online
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2011

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