Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Working Toward Peace
most direct road that I have found to God is in the faces
of poor and struggling people. For me, it was the connection
with people in the St. Thomas housing projects, then with
people on death row and in prison, and then with the murder
I was forty years old before I realized the connection
between the Jesus who had said, "I was in prison and
you came to me, I was hungry and you gave me to eat"
and real-life experience where I was actually with people
who were hungry and people who were in prison and people
who were struggling with the racism that permeates this
society. And it was like the feeling of coming home. Finding
God in the poor was like coming home, because you just say,
"Where have I been all my life?"
I remember being in a soup kitchen. My job was to serve
the red Kool-Aid at the beginning of the line when people
came for a meal. It was the first conscious act I did where
I needed to be in touch with poor and struggling people.
This young man came up, a beautiful kid, he looked like
Mr. Joe College. He was handsome, with blond hair and blue
eyes, and his hand was shaking as he handed me the cup.
And he whispered, "You have to help me, it's my first
time here." The tears welled up in my eyes. I was thinking,
"My God, what is this young guy doing here?" It
draws out of you this tremendous energy and gifts that you
don't even know you have.
My image of finding God is that our little boats are always
on the river. We often are in a stall, and we wait and nothing
moves, and everything seems the same in life. But when we
get involved in a situation like this-for me it was getting
involved with poor people-it's like our boat begins to move
on this current. The wind starts whistling through our hair
and the energy and life is there. And that brought me straight
into the execution chamber. You see, it was very quick from
getting involved with poor people in the St. Thomas housing
projects to writing to a man on death row, to visiting a
man on death row, and then being there for him at the end,
because he had no one to be there with him. And that experience
of being there with him, it's really life up against it:
It's life or death. It's compassion or vengeance. All life
is just distilled to its essence.
In that situation, I experienced a tremendous strength
and presence of God, that God was in this man that society
wanted to throw away and kill. And the words of Jesus-"the
last will be first"-came home to me. That is what those
words meant: that God dwells in the people in the community
that we most want to throw away. It's what builds the human
family and human community. Because what makes things like
the death penalty possible, what makes things like the racism
that continues in our society, the oppression of the poor,
is that there's this disconnection with people.
To me, to find God is to find the whole human family.
No one can be disconnected from us. Which is another way
of talking about the Body of Christ, that we are all part
of this together.
I feel that everybody needs to be in contact with poor
people-that in fact, as Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community
has said, we need to accept that one of the spiritual disciplines-just
like reading the Scriptures and praying and liturgy-is physical
contact with the poor. It's an essential ingredient. If
we are never in their presence, if we never eat with them,
if we never hear their stories, if we are always separated
from them, then I think something really vital is missing.
The other thing I would want to add to the whole question
of finding God is that the journey, wherever it takes us-to
me it has been to the poor and the struggling-must be coupled
with a reflection and a centeredness that comes from prayer
and meditation. It's very important to assimilate what's
happening in our lives. I find that I can't function if
I don't have that sense of being at the center of myself
and in the soul of my soul, so that I am truly operating
from the inside out. And it's important to be very self-directed,
because it is so possible to be caught on other people's
eddies in the river and to get into a stimulus/response
situation. It's so possible not even to realize that we
are really moved by other people's vision of life, other
people's insights, other people's agendas, and just to be
caught on one current to another, that we have no rudder
on our own boat.
When you hit something big like this, and you know that
it's bigger than you-like working for justice in the world,
or trying to connect faith with going against powerful and
entrenched systems-you have this sense of "Yes, I am
doing my part." But then you also need to be able to
put it down and let God run the universe, so you can play
a clarinet or be with your friends or work in a garden.
To be whole is very important. Wholeness, I think, is
part of godliness. I don't think it's cleanliness anymore
that's next to godliness-I think it's wholeness! To have
a well-rounded life. To have a good intellectual life, where
you're reading and thinking and discussing. To have a strong
emotional life where you can give and receive intimacy with
people. To develop friendships like a garden. Because there's
just no room for these Lone Rangers who go and try to save
the world by themselves.
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