As an agnostic Unitarian Universalist, I’ve never found Bible references to be particularity persuasive argumentative tools. In fact, when people cite biblical authority I tend to feel more alienated than convinced. Still, when Sister Helen Prejean leaned forward in her chair in the chapel at Oregon State Penitentiary and in her beautiful Louisiana drawl recounted the story of the burning bush, even I could understand its significance. Her retelling didn’t emphasize faith, instead, she told the story as a moment of awakening, when Moses first understood his responsibility to his people. From the mouth of the activist nun, the story takes on new resonance; the burning bush becomes a gift, a means of liberation from apathy. Inside-Out was my burning bush. In a way that no book, lecture, storytelling, or statistics could, participation in this encounter with the Other shook me awake. I see now, because of my experience in I-O, how action is liberating, how it frees people from their sense of helplessness and insignificance.
At the same time, Inside-Out is also exhausting. While intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally trying, and unlike the burning bush, it does not burn without consuming. This is why Sister Helen’s visit here was so valuable. As she travels the country, she hears thousands of stories. She hears from victims, perpetrators, from those incarcerated and free. A master-weaver, she gathers all those yarns and makes a tapestry, shows us that all this is bigger than each of us; that we are not alone in our exhaustion, burn-out, and dead-ends, but neither are we alone in our successes and triumphs.
I do not think that Sister Helen is anything more than a very brave, and very energetic woman. Indeed, she reminds you that she’s human constantly, through her Yiddish-Buddhist philosophy jokes, her knowledge of zombie videogames, and her gentle ribbing. To make her more than human is to undercut the work that all of us can do despite our imperfections. That said, Sister Helen’s work and stories bring us powerful messages:
- The idea that waking up to our responsibility and capacity for action is liberating- it grants us a community and a purpose
- The reminder that humor and kindness are not peripheral to our work but foundational
- The message that we are not alone in our struggles or our triumphs, and that seeing the Other and being seen by the Other are both human duties and human rights.
While I will probably never be a Christian, this dedication to the Other, to action, to acknowledging the capacity in all of us to do good in our lives no matter our history, feels like faith to me. It is un-provable, un-substantiated, but it moves me towards good everyday and carries me through my moments of defeat. In this way, Sister Helen helped re-affirm my faith and my membership in a movement bigger than myself.
Inside-Out Alumna, UO