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personal commitment to social justice
Washington, March 21, 2010 -- As delegates to Ecumenical Advocacy days re-gathered in their hotel after returning from the March for America on Capitol Hill, Sister Helen Prejean told them a personal commitment to social activism doesn't come naturally: it's a gift from God.
Many of the 700 Advocacy Days delegates took the Metro to Capitol Hill to join an estimated 150,000 marchers from across the nation who want Congress and the President to establish a more just system of immigration for millions of undocumented residents in the U.S.
Demonstrators chanted "Justicia Ahora" (justice now) and carried banners calling for an end to immigration raids that separate families.
Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, wore a red and blue button declaring, "Keep Families Together." The Advocacy Days theme of "A Place to Call Home" had deepened her own commitment to immigration justice, Prejean said.
In a keynote address on the final night of the conference, Prejean said the voices of immigrants must be heard.
"Moses heard the cry of his people," she said. "All during these three days we have heard the cries of good people."
She told the stories of undocumented workers who have suffered separation from their families and unjust treatment in the courts, including a man who begged church workers to send white flowers to his mother's funeral because he was prevented from attending. A man named Manuel Ortiz has been jailed for 19 years in the U.S. without the opportunity to engage a lawyer and offer proof of his innocence, she said.
"But then we're imprisoning a whole country," she said. "There are 2.3 million people in prison in the U.S., two-thirds of them for non-violent crimes -- drug possession or women writing bad checks."
Media and politicians feed the frenzy that forces people into jail, she said. "We say, 'the law, the law, the law,' when it's something we don't like, we say, 'there ought to be a law about this.'"
It isn't easy to see the injustice about the rush of so many persons into jails, Prejean suggested. "There has to be an awakening to a certain kind of Jesus. You know there are a lot of different Jesuses out there, including the domesticated Jesus who calls us to collect cans of beans and soups to give to poor people."
She reminded her audience that Aslan, the lion in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was an allegory of Jesus and a wild animal.
"A wild Jesus?" she asked.
It was just such an encounter that led her to a life of social activism, she said. "I didn't automatically awaken to social justice. There's a whole part of my life you don't know about. I was a 'good' nun."
Prejean admitted she had never met a poor person when she was younger. "I didn't get it. I downright resisted it. When the Civil Rights movement went through the South, how did I participate. By sitting ion the convent laundry playing a guitar and singing, "The answer is blowing in the wind."
Eventually, she said, she awakened to the need for justice for the poor. "I got it and it shook me to my roots."
She encountered Sister Marie Augusta Neal, a sociologist who forced her to face the glaring inequities in the world: two thirds of the peoples of the world live at or below subsistence level while one third live in affluence. To be apolitical or neutral about this injustice would be to take the side of the oppressors, Neal said -- a very political stance.
But Jesus preached good news to the poor, and his message was that that they were to be poor no longer.
"I was so glad when I got it, just to wake up, that I thanked God," Prejean said. "Enlightenment is always a gift."
But when you wake up to the cause of social justice, she warned, "it is always important to act." She quoted the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, another social activist: "Once you know what you know, you can't not do it."
Staying power, like the initial awakening to justice, is also a gift, she said.
Prejean's staying power and commitment to justice is documented in her book. It includes the story of her spiritual counsel to Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer whose execution she witnessed in April 1984.
"When Patrick was killed in front of my eyes I didn't know my whole life had changed," she said. "I told him to look at me as he died. I said, 'I'll be the face of Christ.' I couldn't bear the thought that he wouldn't have one friendly face to look at when he died."
When she came out of the prison the night Sonnier was executed, she said, "my mission was born."
Executions in the U.S. are a "secret ritual" that the public never sees, and Prejean is committed to being a witness to executions to as many persons as possible.
She works with the families of victims as well as the persons convicted of the crimes. "Does execution help the families?" she asked. "When they come out of the prison after witnessing the execution of the person who took the life of their child, what do they return home to. Isn't that empty chair still empty?"
Following her presentation, Prejean signed copies of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.
In most of the books, she signed with a flourish: "Choose life!"
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