Monday, October 12, 2009

Sister Helen Prejean Visits Seattle

By Mara Collins

I attended a dinner where I heard about some on-the ground organizing taking place in the Northwest and the Rockies. To me it seems there appears to be some lack of communication about what work is happening and where it overlaps. That this may speak to the disengaged culture of this region. The Social Justice Fund, which used to be called A Territory Resource, recently joined forces with the Western States center to fund grassroots projects which have already proven they posses the momentum to change and implement policy. The schools were built, the predatory lenders were made to be accountable, etc. The funding of these groups is intended to build on the momentum generated by the election. We got to see a movie about the 9 regional organizations’ work. It was very cool to even know what is being done to eradicate poverty in Washington, specifically. And it was also very cool to learn about what is happening in Oregon, since that feels like my home more than any other place, even though I live in Seattle.

And then they served us some cheesecake and Sister Helen Prejean came up to the podium. I got the sense that people loved her immediately. Sister Helen is the main character from the movie Dead Man Walking where Susan Sarandon became close to a death row inmate during the months before his execution. She continues to do this work and has more recently written a book called Death of Innocents.

She talked about her experience of becoming politicized, about moving from the distant place of being a nun, separate, praying for people-to being with people and connecting with their suffering. That experience woke her up. She saw her friend’s child killed by a neighbor and said, “My mom never had to worry when I went out to play or my sister or brother whether I would be killed”. And how when Black people get killed there is no mention of it in the New Orleans Picayune, but when white people are killed it makes the front page.

She talked about the victim’s family getting ensnared in the politics of what was being called justice. Killing the perpetrator, the prosecuting attorneys said, was somehow to get justice for the lives lost. But how does that bring anybody back? she pointed out. I mean we all already know the death penalty is awful and off base, but she told it so well, it sunk in even deeper. She has a great way of moving so easily back and forth between story and message.

And then she talked about the experience of being the one person in the death house who looked at him with love as he was being executed. She was, to him, the face of Christ as the guy died. They do it in private, she told us, a private ritual of justice killing. And then she brings it home by –get this - making the link how our compliance with the death penalty just tills the soil for the cruel and inhumane torture of inmates at Guantanamo. We all just took it in the gut. She really nailed it beautifully. There is so much more, but that’s the gist.

She said that it might seem too overwhelming to imagine having to fix the whole machine, and hearing that definitely helped me. I for sure spin out into the idea that it’s all too big. Grab the rope where you are and start to pull, she told us. But I am not sure. Are we pulling our end of the ropes just by being therapists who utilize a sense of social justice? If we are politicized, but not lack a developed analysis, do we run the risk of doing more harm than good? How do we know whether we know enough to act? Do our gaps in knowledge give us permission to not take risks?

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