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She is a world-famous nun who woke up to the poor at forty

Her name is Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph. Yes, that one! The one who is known, not only nationally but also internationally, for her book “Dead Men Walking” about life on death row.

Her personal story is a story about awakening to poverty in midlife. St. Vincent was also in mid-life when he woke up to the poor.

It is the story of growing up a Southern white girl right on the cusp of the upper class. “I had only known black people as my servants. Now it was my turn to serve them.”

It is the story of discovering a call within the call of her religious vocation.

[The following excerpts are drawn from her reflection “Catholics should hang out with poor people”]

Her Story

 “I was 40 years old before I realized the connection between the Jesus who said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” and the real-life experience of being with actual people who were hungry.

“Before that, when I read “I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” I tended to rationalize, “There are a lot of ways of being hungry.” “I was in prison, and you came to visit me,” — “There are a lot of ways we live in prison.”

“Other members of my religious community woke up to this before I did, and we had fierce debates about what our mission should be.

“In 1980, when my religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, made a commitment to “stand on the side of the poor,” I assented, but only reluctantly. I resisted this recasting of the faith of my childhood, where what had counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life was done. I didn’t want to struggle with politics and economics. We were nuns, after all, not social workers.”

“But later that year I finally got it. I began to realize that my spiritual life had been too ethereal, too disconnected. To follow Jesus meant that I needed to seek out the company of poor and struggling people. So, in June 1981 I drove a little brown truck into St. Thomas, a black, inner-city housing project in New Orleans, and began to live there with four other sisters.”

Here she journeyed with a young man on death row. That journey had a profound effect on her.

“At Patrick’s execution, I experienced a tremendous strength and presence of God. God was in this man that society wanted to throw away and kill. And Jesus’ words that “the last will be first” came home to me. That is what those words meant: that God dwells in the people we most want to throw away. And what makes things like the death penalty possible, what makes things like racism and the oppression of the poor possible, is that there’s a disconnection with people.”

Her reflections on her story

“To me, to find God is to find the whole human family. In our society, life tends to be disconnected in terms of where and how we work, live, and worship. …  But ultimately, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all connected to one another. It’s another way of talking about the Body of Christ.

I have come to believe that every Christian who takes his or her faith seriously needs to be in contact with poor people. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine has said, we need to accept that one of the spiritual disciplines—just like reading scripture and praying and liturgy—is physical contact with the poor. If we never eat with them, if we never hear their stories, if we are always separated from them, then something really vital is missing.”

I have come to believe that every Christian who takes his or her faith seriously needs to be in contact with poor people. Helen Prejean

Echoes of following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor

Finally, she echoes the spirit of Vincent, Louise, Frederic, Rosalie and others in our Vincentian family.

And it is there, in the faces of poor and struggling people, that I have found the most direct road to God.

And it is there, in the faces of poor and struggling people, that I have found the most direct road to God.” Helen Prejean

What struck you most about her story?

Click below for an audio version of this post.

Helen Prejean discovers the poor