‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

me&helen

On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Eat your heart out, Travis Bickle

Meet Linda Randolph. Her resume is impressive.

Public health pediatrician. Graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California. She is president and CEO of Developing Families Center, Inc., a non-profit in Washington D.C. that serves low-income women of child-bearing and child-rearing age and their families. She has been recognized for her sensitivity and commitment to the complex needs of poor women, especially those of color. She’s been doing this sort of work for years — three decades to be exact.

I had the privilege of sitting next to her at dinner one night last week at the America Healing conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Randolph nibbled on a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes. Somehow the conversation migrated from maternal outcomes to the day that Randolph will retire.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a racial healing conference last week.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a conference.

 

“What will you do?” I asked. “Will you stay in Washington?”

Randolph is a native of D.C.

I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.

“I’m going to move to New York and drive a taxi.”

Whoah. Seriously?

Randolph said there were few women who drove taxis in NYC. She wants another cabbie to glance her way and take a good look when she’s behind the wheel of a yellow cab.

And she’s gonna make sure it’s a taxi with manual transmission.

She loves to drive stick-shift. More than 40 years ago, when she was still young and impressionable, Randolph drove from New York to San Francisco with a friend. He was from Costa Rica and had never shifted gears. But never mind that. They took turns at the wheel: 4 hours each. They drove like the wind and made it to the Pacific in 3 and 1/2 days.

So that’s what Randolph looks forward to. Out performing badass cabbies in the city known for them. I guessed her cabbie days were fast approaching. But how long would she work as a driver? She’s 72 now. Didn’t she want a few years of rest and relaxation?

Well, she said, her mama lived to see 99.

“When she died, she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face.”

Here’s to you, Dr. Linda Randolph, full of life and and now a source of inspiration for me. Here’s to you and many good years as a taxi driver.


My Christmas gift



This is the season when we feel compelled to give. We give our time at homeless shelters, buy bags of food for the hungry and write checks out to charities that help people in far-flung places. Sometimes, it’s difficult to choose an agency. Many of us are cynical about how effectively the money will be spent. Or we question whether it will do any good at all.

I do not pretend to know the answers to solving global poverty, but I will share with you a story about one family whose life is about to change radically.

Ibrahim Gulam lives in a part of central Kolkata that is usually not seen by visitors to the city. I would guess that many of my friends and relatives have never even been to this part of town. The main road still bears its British name — Colin Road.

the streets are overflowing with workshops and warehouses. Gulam lives in an area where plaster molding is manufactured. Some of the men and women look like aliens, their dark faces perpetually smeared with white dust.

Crime and drug addiction is rampant in this part of town. So, too, are broken hearts. Broken dreams.

You have to snake through tiny lanes bursting with humanity to get to the room that Ibrahim shares with his parents and three siblings. He and his brother sleep atop the hard bed, his mother and sisters share the floor and his father, an asthmatic who has not been able to hold down a full time job because of his respiratory ailments, lies under the bed.

In the summer, the heat and humidity are so intense that the whitewash on the walls peels off. Little adorns the dark, cramped room save scripture from the Quran. Ibrahim’s mother cooks on a coal-burning stove on the floor outside, where shoes heap up and the cement is incessantly wet from household use.

The family shares a latrine with countless other people. Often, bathing is done is public at the local tubewell.

The smells here are like nothing found in America — a mixture of life and waste and human misery.

Westerners dubbed this “the city of joy.” I heard a businessman on my flight back telling the flight attendant that he had taken his young son for a tour of Kolkata slums. He leaned back in his $4,000 business class seat and talked of how “fascinating” the lives of the poor were.

He should talk to Ibrahim.

To say that his life has been a struggle is an understatement.

I met him when he was in grade school. He was one of several children my brother and I sponsored. We paid for their schooling so that they would have a chance in life.

No one in Ibrahim’s neighborhood has finished high school. His father, Gulam Siddiq, studied in a Bengali medium school but dropped out in the second grade, later learning how to be an electrician. His mother, Rabyia Sultana, stopped in the fifth grade in her native Bihar.

I wanted Ibrahim and his siblings not to live the life of his parents. I wanted to do everything in power to preserve his joie de vivre.

I watched him grow, visited him when I went home every year. He did well in Navjjyoti, a school for poor children that my friend Vijay helped establish. He was admitted to the reputable Assembly of God Church school. So was his brother Zahid and sisters Anjum and Zahida.

Ibrahim is now 24 and will soon earn a degree from Seacom Engineering College. I visited him in early December and his latest report card showed him excelling in almost every subject.

His brother and sister followed in his footsteps and are also in college. His youngest sister will enroll in college next year. She wants to study microbiology.

Ibrahim’s mother beamed with pride as she talked about her children. She knows that one day soon, the family will leave that dismal room. On Ibrahim’s salary, they will be able to afford a flat in a nicer part of the city, put better food in their bellies.

Ibrahim had the fortitude to win against all odds — to study in dim light, distracted by the hub-bub of the slum. He persisted when I had half expected him to give up. Yet, year after year, he delighted me with his report cards. A few years ago, he came to visit me with his grades in hand. That’s when he told me: “I want to be an engineer. I want life to be different.”

In India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, sometimes, not even an education is a ticket out of poverty. But without it, a young man or woman stands no chance of success. There, vocations do not pay as well as they do in America. Labour is cheap and the life of an electrician like Ibrahim’s father is far from comfort.

I sponsor other children in Kolkata as well. I talk to their parents, who want to pull them out of classrooms and put them to work instead. Many of them are not supportive of their children and even punish them for wanting to sit down with their books. But it’s not easy persuading a poor person to give up another source of income.

Not all my kids have been as successful as Ibrahim. Ranjeet Shaw is struggling to pass his high school board exams, though he told me when I saw him a few weeks ago that he was not giving up. He has seen hope and he is not going to let it go without a fight.

I don’t have children of my own, but my Kolkata kids have filled that void in my life. And then some.