BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – “It’s all about catching on fire,” said activist and author Sister Helen Prejean during her address at Illinois Wesleyan University Founders’ Day Convocation on Wednesday. “Our life is flow, our life is a river. Different currents fit it – we’re going to the sea. Life is about fire, the passion.”
In 1982, when Prejean began visiting convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier in prison, she started to discover the fire within her for social justice. However, she noted, it took awhile for this awakening to occur.
The daughter of a successful lawyer, Prejean said she grew up in privilege, although she was not keenly aware of it at the time. It wasn’t until she immersed herself with the poor of New Orleans and moved into the St. Thomas housing projects that she was awakened to the need for social justice in her own city. She learned that there were more complaints to the justice department about police brutality in New Orleans than any other city. “I was living out in the lakefront by the suburbs and it could have been going on in India. I didn’t know anyone had been beaten by the police,” said Prejean, who recalls how her firsthand experiences in the housing projects ignited a fire in her heart.
It was this awareness of injustice, as well as an inside look at the death penalty in New Orleans that caused Prejean to take a stand. “You can’t see the suffering, the system in place that’s killing people and say, ‘Well, I’m neutral.’ Catching on fire for justice means somehow we have an experience where we see the suffering,” she said.