INDIANAPOLIS–The cab driver didn’t want to take me to the address Sister Helen Prejean gave me.
This was in New Orleans about 25 years ago, right around the time “Dead Man Walking”–the movie that made Prejean famous–had come out. I’d asked for an interview with her and been told to come to the place where she worked.
When I told the cabbie the address, he looked at me.
“Are you nuts?” he said. “You’re gonna get us both killed.”
Eventually, he agreed to drive me, but, when we pulled up, he held out his hand, took my cash and barked, “Don’t be caught here after dark.”
His tires screeched as he pulled away, the car door I’d just exited slamming shut while the vehicle was already in motion.
When I met Sister Helen and told her about my taxi ride, she shook her head and laughed.
“We have the hardest time with taxis here. Often, we call, and they just won’t come,” she said.
I’d read her book, of course, and I’d seen the movie. She didn’t have the serene, doe-eyed, celluloid-friendly beauty of Susan Sarandon, who played her in the film.
Instead, she was an earthy woman with an easy laugh and kind but knowing eyes. When she told stories, she emphasized the mistakes she had made. She was judgmental about no one other than herself.
I had come to talk with her about the death penalty. She had emerged as the leading advocate for the abolition of capital punishment in America. Being the subject of an Oscar-winning film had only elevated her prominence.
We ended up talking, though, primarily about faith.
She was in her middle 50s then. She had joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph when she was 18.
But it wasn’t until she was 40, Sister Helen said, that she really understood what faith was. In the first part of her life, she explained, she saw religious devotion as something transactional. As long as she adhered to a set of principles, she kept her part of the bargain.
Her work with inmates on death row and with the grieving families of the killers’ victims changed that. She realized that real faith was transformational. It wasn’t enough to offer allegiance to God and then let God solve the world’s problems.
To be devout was to be an instrument of God’s will.
Faith isn’t supposed to be just a source of comfort. It also is a goad–a call to action.
To be devout, she said, she had to find ways to ease suffering and seek justice. To be Christian was to try to follow Christ’s example.
As she talked, I thought about how little we understand saints and martyrs, whatever their faith. We tend to think of them as almost otherworldly figures, devoid of earthly passions and frailties.
In truth, they are like the woman with whom I talked. Sister Helen told me she liked a good beer and a good joke – and that she often wondered if she was doing enough to help.
I saw an interview the other day Sister Helen did with Slate.
She’s 81 now. She said she ponders her own mortality, just like the rest of us, but that she doesn’t let that deter her.
“I think I’ve lasted so long because I was such a slow learner. I mean, it took me until I was 40 to wake up [to the idea] that the gospel of Jesus—the radical gospel of Jesus—is really about justice for people and not just living my life of privilege and comfort, you know?” she said.
The body may age, but the spirit endures.
As I read the Slate piece, I thought about the end to our conversation a quarter-century ago.
I asked if I could use the phone to call a cab. Sister Helen said yes, but that it wouldn’t do any good.
I told her that was OK. I’d walk back to my hotel.
Sister Helen laughed, as if to say I may be kind but I’m not naïve.
She grabbed her car keys and told me she’d drive me.
That’s what saints in the making do.
They try to deliver us from dark and dangerous places.