Inspiration from the example of the author of Dead Man Walking, who came to justice work late in life.
We all have our own heroes in the faith. These are the saints of the past and present who inspire and encourage us in our own journeys. They stand out for their courage and boldness. Maybe it’s a favourite contemporary author who opens our eyes anew, or someone who put their own life at risk to stand for justice, or a pillar of the Early Church.
We often think of these saints as otherworldly, beyond reproach, or at least single-minded in their dedication and commitment while on their spiritual journeys.
However on closer examination our saintly heroes are just like the rest of us – struggling with doubts and pride, oblivious to God’s call (at least at first) and then too stubborn to follow.
Yet, it’s often these characteristics that give us hope. It’s never too late to follow God’s call, and God only calls the imperfect.
One such hero of mine is Sister Helen Prejean. I recently read her book, River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist (Vintage, 2020) where she recalls the journey to her vocation.
Sister Prejean has long been someone I’ve admired for her peace work, particularly her work against the death penalty. You might know her from the book and then film Dead Man Walking (Vintage, 1994).
But what I did not know is that Sister Prejean was well into her career and life before coming to the work of justice. She talks, with much regret, about living through the 1960s and ’70s as just a spectator to great social justice movements for civil rights and peace, not embracing a holistic gospel message. I was surprised by this revelation. I had just assumed that she had always been engaged in justice issues as part of her faith.
Prejean joined the novitiate and later the Sisters of St Joseph immediately upon high school graduation and continued theological study in the exciting time of the Second Vatican Council.
Growing up and initially serving in privileged upper-middleclass communities, she was able to separate her own life and calling from the realities of oppression and injustice. She was quite happy and proud to help the poor and downtrodden, but she did not make a connection to ending that poverty, discrimination and injustice as part of her work or Christian calling.
She recalls, “A mighty wind was blowing, all right, all over the place, rattling the windowpanes and pushing at the doors in the beleaguered lives of black people all around me. Until I got Jesus right, I couldn’t hear it.”
It was upwards of 25 years into her career that her eyes were opened to walking with the downtrodden and seeking to bring change to unjust systems. She describes it as long ride down a river before that river was on fire with a passion for justice.
Starting her career in the age of Vatican II was a significant factor as the Catholic Church was re-imagining its role in the world. Many justice-oriented Sisters persisted in talking to her about their calling and dragged her to justice-themed conferences and gatherings. She rolled her eyes and endured it until one speaker broke through while talking about the call of the gospel to break down systems of oppression and injustice.
She recalls that it was as if she could finally hear God’s full calling on her life. And it brought her to be the Sister Helen Prejean we know and love today.
The encouragement I take from this is that the leadership in our own church denominations, organizations, communities or even governments are not immune to changes of heart. No one is out of reach of God’s call to justice.
In Canada it feels like we are finally wrestling with the true horrors of our past and the suffering and death of Indigenous children, many at the hands of church-run residential schools. Yet, I have been encouraged by the responses of many churches – both cries of repentance and lament – and calls to work for true change and reconciliation. It is never too late to hear and respond to the cries for justice and God’s work for peace.
Bekah Sears is an advocate for justice, peace and reconciliation. She just marked 10 years with Mennonite Central Committee, where she currently works as the policy analyst and government relations specialist for MCC Canada’s Peace and Justice Office in Ottawa. Bekah is originally from Fredericton, N.B., and currently lives in Ottawa. Photo of Helen Prejean by Scott Langley used with permission from www.sisterhelen.org/biography.