In Lecture, Sister Helen Prejean Talks Being “Surprised By Grace”

Friday, November 8, 2019
Sister Helen Prejean speaks at Rockhurst University

Becoming one of the world’s foremost advocates for justice was not necessarily a goal for Sister Helen Prejean when she took her final vows. But once she started down that path, there was no escape.

Sr. Prejean, whose 1994 book Dead Man Walking was turned into a hit film the next year, was the guest of the Visiting Scholar Lecture Series on Wednesday, delivering a talk co-sponsored by Rockhurst Respect Life that served as both a look back at her spiritual journey to justice and an inspiration to the audience to embrace their own.

When she joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, Sr. Prejean said she had been largely sheltered from many of the world’s realities in regard to poverty, race and injustice.

“I knew about charity, but I didn’t know about justice,” she said. “And it was a struggle to get there.”

Both the film and book Dead Man Walking depict part of that struggle — Sr. Prejean’s work as spiritual advisor for death row inmates. It’s a role that led her to international attention as an advocate against capital punishment. And each step changed her life, bit by bit — a phenomenon she called, with a Southern drawl, “sneaky Jesus.”

“When we face really big things… grace comes under us as we need it, not ahead of time,” she said.

It started with a seemingly simple decision to become pen pals with Louisiana death row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier. Following a back and forth correspondence, she would serve as spiritual advisor to Sonnier and other inmates, witnessing firsthand the horror of capital punishment with the 1984 execution of Robert Lee Willie.

River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, Sr. Prejean’s new memoir that serves as a sort of prequel to Dead Man Walking, recounts what happened before that night in December 1984 when Willie was sent to die, with the widespread change in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council and the way that the message of social justice that came after had “lit a fire” in her to do more. In her lecture, she said, she hoped her audience would feel that same fire.