U.S. Catholic Sept , 2002

It’s not enough to write a few checks to charity. If Christians take their faith seriously, they must spend actual face-to-face time with people who are poor. It took Sister Helen Prejean a while to realize this, but now she believes it’s as essential as going to Mass.

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’re a lot of ways we live in prison.”

The first conscious act I did where I was in touch with poor and struggling people was at a homeless shelter, where I served the red Kool-Aid at the beginning of the meal line. This young man came up, a beautiful kid who looked like Mr. Joe College. He was handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes, and his hand was shaking as he handed me the cup. And he whispered, “You have to help me, it’s my first time here.” Tears welled up in my eyes. I was thinking, “My God, what is this young guy doing here?”

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.

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.

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.

When you dig way back into church teachings, you find that the church’s focus on justice has been tucked in there all along in “social encyclicals.” Not exactly coffee-table literature. The documents have been called the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church, and with good reason. The mandate to practice social justice is unsettling because taking on the struggles of the poor invariably means challenging the wealthy and those who serve their interests. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”–that’s what Catholic activist Dorothy Day said is the heart of the Christian gospel.

It didn’t take long to see that for poor people–especially poor black people–there was a greased track to prison and death row. As one mama in St. Thomas put it: “Our boys leave here in a police car or a hearse.”

Drug activity took place in the open, but when the sisters went to the mayor’s office to complain, the officials would just shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, Sister, every city has a problem with drugs. At least we know where they are.”

I began to understand that some life is valued and some life is not.

IT WAS VERY QUICK FROM GETTING INVOLVED WITH PEOPLE in the St. Thomas housing projects to writing to a man on death row, to visiting a man on death row, and then being there for him at the end, because he had no one to be there with him.

When I agreed to write to Patrick Sonnier, I didn’t know much about him except that if he was on death row in Louisiana, he had to be poor. And that holds true for virtually all the people who inhabit death-row cells in our country.

Who pays the ultimate penalty for crimes? The poor. Who gets the death penalty? The poor. After all the rhetoric that goes on in legislative assemblies, in the end, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.

And after being with the poor, the gospel comes to you as it never has before. Look at who Jesus hung out with: lepers, prostitutes, thieves–the throwaways of his day. If we are to call ourselves Jesus’ disciples, we have to minister to the throwaways of today.

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.

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. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning. We remain disconnected to and fearful of the poor and of people who are different from ourselves. 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–we are all part of this together.

Working with the poor draws out of you tremendous energy and gifts you don’t even know you have. And it gives you the feeling of coming home. When we neglect the poor, we miss out on these powerful experiences.

In our search for God, being open to wherever our journey takes us must be coupled with reflection and prayer and meditation. It’s important to assimilate what’s happening in our lives. I can’t function if I don’t feel I’m at the center of myself, truly operating from the inside out.

The journey may not take everyone to housing projects or death row, but it should take everyone to an awareness of the plight of the poor. Everyone can study the social teachings of the church, and everyone can get involved in outreach programs that help poor and struggling people.

Our parish is “twinned” with a local poor parish, which gives us an opportunity to spend time with and think about the poor. We provide food for their food bank and presents for their children at Christmas. We also are connected to two parishes in Haiti and Nicaragua and have funded projects that help them to become self-sufficient. Soup kitchens, St. Vincent de Paul, Bread for the World–all these are good places to start. These projects let us meet the poor face to face.

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

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By SISTER HELEN PREJEAN, C.S.J., author of Dead Man Walking (Random House, 1993) and an anti-death-penalty activist.