How Sister Helen Prejean became a “social justice sister”

“What saves us is learning how to love, even to the point of death.”

Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is famous for her efforts to abolish the death penalty and for her best-selling 1993 book, Dead Man Walking, which was dramatized in a 1995 film directed by Tim Robbins. She runs an organization called Ministry Against the Death Penalty. Her memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, tells how she became a social justice activist. With characteristic candor and humor, she cautions readers to be patient for signs of transformation: “Don’t hold your breath. It’s going to take a while.”

Why did you write a memoir that focuses on your early adulthood and the Vatican II era?

I was in my forties before I realized that the following of Christ, the living of Christianity, is a lot more than praying and asking God to help the suffering people and being nice to the people in my immediate vicinity. It has to do with a wider, deeper framework, and with reaching out to the margins. Less than a sixteenth of a mile away from where I lived as a nun in those times was one of the housing projects where African Americans lived and struggled, with police beating them up, redlined by banks, segregated in neighborhoods, and I was oblivious to it.