My Cape Cod sleepover with Sr. Helen

Reprinted from Call To Action’s website:

Prejean wave

“So, you’re Sophie on the sofa?”

Sr. Helen Prejean greeted me with a hug, referencing our sleeping arrangements at Kathy Schatzberg’s home on Cape Cod. Sr. Helen and I were guests on the Cape for two nights during her speaking tour, which was co-sponsored by Call To Action.

The 77-year-old Sister of St. Joseph, whom I met once before in 2007 during a speaking tour at Creighton University, was kind and comforting like an aunt, philosophical like a professor and spiritually strong—as a women religious.  Her presence left a mark on me, and as I edit the interview footage Sr. Helen so generously allowed me to record, I’m reminded of her grace and inner peace.

“I didn’t have the luxury of despair,” Sr. Helen said during the Q&A session after the viewing of Dead Man Walking.  Sr. Helen’s decades of work advocating for restorative justice and an end to the death penalty is impressive—to the extent that she was able to ask Pope Francis to halt the execution of Richard Glossip last year.  In January of this year, she met with Pope Francis to deliver a thank-you letter from Glossip.  She spoke highly of him and his famous welcoming spirit.

Sr. Helen was open, too, about working within the church, and the line she, and other Catholic leaders have to walk in order to do their good works.

I was struck most by Sr. Helen’s grace amidst an obviously grueling schedule of speaking and traveling.  A break is in sight, as she’ll be taking off autumn from speaking to work on a book about her spiritual awakening. “It’s a prequel to Dead Man Walking,” she said.  Additionally, at the end of the week, Sr. Helen planned to go to Baton Rouge to be with her sister who is very ill.  “So, that’s something that’s weighing on me right now,” Sr. Helen said.  “I’ve been talking to her every day.”

On our last morning, we sat around Kathy’s table drinking coffee, Sr. Helen in her pajamas.  She teased Kathy, whose schedule is always packed, about running the Cape’s social calendar, and told me more about her visit with Pope Francis.  Afterward, we continued the interview in Kathy’s sun room.  During the second interview I asked her the questions I really wanted her to answer: How the violence of capital punishment affects society as a whole, how we as people of faith are required to act, and how her spirituality keeps her grounded.

“I’ve never really talked about all that violence before,” she said after the interview.  Hesitant to speak about the ways people personally respond to violence, “I don’t want to be talking about, ‘oh you’ll be saved when you do this. . . ‘” rather she spoke of societal violence, and how we as Americans should respond.

“I just did that one little thing, write the book, talk about what I saw.  I realized that when you begin to act it’s really liberating.  We don’t have a blueprint of all the steps, but life emerges, life unfolds.  It’s the way the universe works.  And that’s the spirit in our hearts.”

The power of encounter was palpable—encounter with just one other human being who has changed hearts and saved lives, advocating tirelessly for life—for love—for state-sanctioned killing to end.

To view my interview with Sr. Helen click here.