“Dead Man Walking” author Sister Helen Prejean says being a good Christian means taking action. So to learn what Prejean believes, she says to watch what she does. For her, that means her work with death row prisoners and with victims’ families.
I watch what I do to see what I really believe.
Belief and faith are not just words. It’s one thing for me to say I’m a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it. So, writing this essay and knowing I’ll share it in a public way becomes an occasion for me to look deeply at what I really believe by how I act.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said, and as a beginner nun I tried earnestly to love my neighbor — the children I taught, their parents, my fellow teachers, my fellow nuns. But for a long time the circle of my loving care was small and, for the most part, included only white, middle-class people like me. But one day I woke up to Jesus’s deeper challenge to love the outcast, the criminal, the underdog. So I packed my stuff and moved into a noisy, violent housing project in an African-American neighborhood in New Orleans.
I saw the suffering and I let myself feel it: the sound of gunshots in the night, mothers calling out for their children. I saw the injustice and was compelled to do something about it. I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a nun with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer. Working in that community in New Orleans soon led me to Louisiana’s death row.
So I keep watching what I do to see what I actually believe.
Jesus’s biggest challenge to us is to love our enemies. On death row I encountered the enemy, those considered so irredeemable by our society that even our Supreme Court has made it legal to kill them. For 20 years now I’ve been visiting people on death row, and I have accompanied six human beings to their deaths. As each has been killed I have told them to look at me. I want them to see a loving face when they die. I want my face to carry the love that tells them that they and every one of us are worth more than our most terrible acts.
But I knew being with the perpetrators wasn’t enough. I also had to reach out to victims’ families. I visited the families who wanted to see me, and I founded a victims’ support group in New Orleans. It was a big stretch for me, loving both perpetrators and victims’ families, and most of the time I fail because so often a victim’s families interpret my care for perpetrators as choosing sides — the wrong side. I understand that, but I don’t stop reaching out.
I’ve learned from victims’ families just how alone many of them feel. The murder of their loved one is so horrible, their pain so great, that most people stay away. But they need people to visit, to listen, to care. It doesn’t take anybody special, just someone who cares.
Writing this essay reminds me, as an ordinary person, that it’s important to take stock, to see where I am. The only way I know what I really believe is by keeping watch over what I do.
Sister Helen Prejean’s work as spiritual advisor to death row inmates formed the basis of two books, including “Dead Man Walking." A native of Louisiana, Prejean became a nun in 1957, and in 1981 she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Grant-Guerrero Photography.
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