Catholic novelist discusses social justice advocacy

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 9:55pm

Sister Helen Prejean discusses the background of her most recent book "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey" at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor Wednesday evening.

Sister Helen Prejean discusses the background of her most recent book "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey" at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily


Approximately 150 community members filled the pews of First United Methodist Church to hear Sister Helen Prejean, a renowned author and nun, discuss her book “River of Fire,” released in August. She described what it was like to see injustice impact others and her advocacy work.

“We can’t make ourselves wake up,” Prejean said. “We can show up for things like this where someone’s going to be blowing on the coals and a fire might happen, but it’s always grace when we wake up. And it doesn’t matter when we wake up. It’s what we do after that I think is really important.”

Prejean, who has been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in the The New York Times, began life as a nun at age 18. Her first book, “Dead Man Walking,” was turned into an opera and Academy Award-winning film.

During her talk, she discussed her transition from a nun who grew up shielded from other cultures to living a life entirely devoted to social justice. 

Specifically, Prejean has been an advocate against capital punishment. Prejean said she was inspired by an imprisoned pen pal, who was killed on death row two-and-a-half years after they met.

When “Dead Man Walking” was released in the early 1990s, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. Prejean said she attributes this support to fear and sees her role as changing the conversation.

“I could sense it’s because they had been made to be afraid that there’s some people so evil we can’t put them in prison because they would kill other people,” Prejean said. 

Ashley Lucas, Prison Creative Arts Project director at the University of Michigan, introduced Prejean at the event. Lucas commended Prejean for her advocacy on the issue.

“My friend, Sister Helen Prejean, is a Louisiana nun from the Congregation of St. Joseph, and it is my belief that she has done more for the national movement to end the death penalty than any other person in U.S. History,” Lucas said. “Those who know her work feel a kind of reverence one can only feel for holy people … Sister Helen fills me with a kind of awe that I feel for very few people.”

Prejean discussed coming of age in the 1960s, as the Second Vatican was addressing the Catholic Church’s place in the outside world. She recounted her experience of dressing up in the clothing of widowed women to go out and explore the world.

Additionally, Prejean described the experience of watching her pen pal be executed as her spark-starting moment and changed the trajectory of her life into one of advocacy.

“You can see close up what it means to give the government power to take another human being,” Prejean said. “A conscious, imaginative human being whose been in his cell for 20, 30 years and then being taken out and to his execution. Once you see it, it’s that fire in your soul and you can’t unsee it.”

Community member Jane Van Slembrouck said Prejean’s discussion of finding fire in life specifically resonated with her. 

“I loved the way she talked about finding that moment of fire in your life,” Van Slembrouck said. “A moment that’s transformative. Some kind of experience that you can clearly define a before and an after. For her, it was the moment of witnessing the execution, but I think she was trying to say each of us should seek out those moments when we feel fire in us and take that forward into our lives.”

During a question-and-answer portion following the talk, Prejean emphasized the importance of bringing women into conversations — especially in places where women have historically been underrepresented, like the Catholic Church.

“When we look at the health of the church and what is happening with the priests, we see that we are not at all a healthy church,” Prejean said. “We need the wisdom of women.”

University alum Mia Hutchinson, who participated in PCAP while enrolled as a student, also emphasized the importance of supporting prisoners as they are often voiceless in society.

“People in prison are looked upon as lying on the outskirts of society, and I think they aren’t given much attention from the everyday, average person,” Hutchinson said. “The more people stand up and rally around these people who don’t have a voice at all, it can really shed a light on their situation.”