Posted by StreetWise in Latest News
Dismayed by the renewed calls for austerity coming from Capitol Hill, 14 Roman Catholic sisters decided to band together to take their message of social and economic justice straight to the American people.
Known as “Nuns on Bus,” these Sisters traveled to nine states where they delivered stump speeches, hosted daily press conferences, and visited local congressmen’s offices all in an effort to galvanize support for what they call “a fair and compassionate budget.”
From Des Moines to Washington, they engaged friends and foes alike. At nightly “friendraisers,” they lauded fellow nuns, like the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin and the Sisters of Divine Providence in Pittsburgh, for their tireless work on behalf of the poor. And during the day, they took on their fiercest critics, like U.S. Reps. Joe Walsh (R-IL) and Steve King (R-IA), whom they denounced for trying to gut Medicare and Social Security.
Their foray into grassroots politics vaulted them onto to the national stage where they attracted the praise of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as the ire of comedian Stephen Colbert who jokingly assailed them for preaching “radical feminism.”
Now back in her DC office, Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the Nuns on the Bus, reflects on her 15-day journey and gives her take on what it is like to battle in the cutthroat world of American politics.
When she spoke of her trip, she painted two very different pictures of what she saw.
One was sanguine, filled with all the elements of a tour that the sisters could have hoped for – from overflowing crowds to fawning press coverage to the palpable yearning for change felt on the ground.
Sister Campbell remarked that their first stop in Des Moines closely resembled this scene. “The Sisters of the Humility of Mary created a service of over 300 people on the spot,” she said. It was the ideal start for their journey, she added, as it gave them a much-needed glimpse of the passion and enthusiasm their mission engendered.
But their euphoria quickly evaporated once they spoke 1-on-1 with people who suffered needlessly as they waited for the federal government to come to their aid.
One particularly poignant moment for Sister Campbell was a conversation she had in Cincinnati with a family whose mother had recently passed.
“She was only 56,” Sister Campbell said somberly. “She died because she didn’t have health insurance.”
Moments like these were a visual reminder for the sisters of why they devoted their life’s work to social justice. The hardships of the people they spoke to were not mere isolated incidents; they were a microcosm of what is happening across the country.
College graduates are being thrust into a jobless market, families are amassing debt at a record pace, and seniors are delaying retirement in the face of depleted 401 Ks.
And all of this is happening while the wealthy appear to sacrificing nil.
The Nuns on the Bus see this as a grave threat to the nation’s welfare.
“We (as a nation) have two choices,” Sister Campbell argued. “We can either be a nation of fear or a nation of fairness.”
There was a long pause after she said that. Then a sigh. She didn’t need ominous background music to make her point. Her silence gave away the answer. Just like so many Americans who have become disillusioned over the last few years, the sisters are worried. “We really don’t want to become a nation of fear,” she eventually stated.
But the worst has yet to come, the sisters predict. On their bus tour, they blamed government policies, like rampant deregulation and tax cuts for the very rich, for the country’s economic malaise. They repeatedly said that government propped up the rich while casting a blind eye on the poor.
However, no piece of legislation is as draconian as the Ryan Budget, Sister Campbell said. “(It is) a summary of all the bad choices that can be made in one place,” she flatly asserted.
Authored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the controversial budget blueprint is a Republican’s wish list. If enacted, Medicare would be cut, taxes would be slashed, and health care reform would be repealed. In addition, it contains elements of tort reform as well as an arbitrary spending cap.
Like almost every piece of major reform recently introduced in the polarized Beltway, it has been greeted with mixed reviews. Conservatives portray Ryan as a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, calling him an intrepid warrior who is ready to take an axe to the welfare state. Liberals see him as more of a Rick Perry – a Tea Party radical whose political prominence is fleeting and whose promise to cut government spending in half is dangerous and unwise.
Sister Campbell’s criticisms are more measured but equally scathing. When asked what the worst parts of the Ryan Plan were, she had difficulty selecting just one. She criticized it for giving “greater tax cuts to the wealthy under the guise that they would create jobs” and for giving “the Defense Department eight billion more dollars than it even asked for.”
She ended her rebuke with a rhetorical question: “why should people at the margins of society pay the burden?”
If a single question could encapsulate the mission of the Nuns on the Bus, that would certainly be it.
Whether they were speaking to reporters from the Cedar Rapids Gazette or the Cleveland Plain Dealer; whether they were visiting Speaker of the House John Boehner’s (R-OH) office or U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN); whether they were engaged in a serious dialogue with Bill Moyers (who traveled alongside them for a portion of their trip) or in a humorous interview with Stephen Colbert – their message was the always same: the poor should not bear the brunt of the country’s burden.
It was a powerful emotional statement that exhilarated their allies and challenged their critics. But stirring rhetoric was just one piece of the brilliant case they constructed.
To give their message more credence, the Nuns on the Bus stopped at close to a dozen organizations committed to helping and empowering the poor.
In Dubuque, they visited the Dubuque Food Pantry to highlight the millions of people who suffer from starvation. In Chicago, they stopped at Mercy Housing to discuss the human impact of cuts to affordable housing. And in Cleveland, they went to the Children’s Day Camp & Hunger Center to express the need for more government support for disadvantaged youth.
If their words were the opening statement that impressed their onlookers, the places they visited were the closing argument that brought scores of people into their fold.
“We touched something that was profound and deep,” Sister Campbell noted. “We showed the faces of poverty that people often hear about but rarely ever see with their own eyes.”
By touting the contributions of social advocacy groups across the country, the sisters shined light on an important band of spokesmen for the poor that often goes unnoticed: nuns. Every day, they met with a different group of nuns, each devoted in their own unique way to bolstering the poor.
These events showcased a running theme of the sisters’ trip: the confluence of faith and social justice.
Moments like these were deeply personal for Sister Campbell. “Faith has led me to know we are a community, much deeper than the political lines we would like to draw,” she said.
However, the political lines still run deep — even through the Catholic Church where there is sharp disagreement over what issues its leaders should speak out on in the public square.
The Nuns on the Bus spoke to this directly in a press release in which they noted that “the Vatican recently criticized Catholic Sisters in the U.S. for spending too much time working for social justice instead of speaking out on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.” They went on to say that “despite the controversy, Catholic Sisters stand with the Bishops in criticizing the Ryan budget.”
Disheartened by the Vatican’s response, Sister Campbell called it “painful for the faithful everywhere.”
However, she quickly added that she and her sisters remain undeterred as they fight deep in the trenches for “systemic change.”
As Sister Campbell ruminated about the future, she revealed how the insights she gained on the road shaped the ways she plans to tackle the challenges that lay ahead.
When asked if she thought the Ryan Budget was still on the table for Congress’s next session, she showed no hint of naiveté, saying “absolutely” without a speck of doubt in her voice.
Nevertheless, Sister Campbell appeared optimistic. She was quite certain that the reactions she heard across the county to cuts to domestic services portended trouble for the GOP.
“There is a real hunger for communal change,” she observed. “People are sick of hearing ‘I, I, I and me, me, me.’ [They know] those words do not reflect the soul of the country.”
When asked about the influence the Nuns on the Bus had on the political debate, Sister Campbell passed on the opportunity to claim personal credit. Instead, she showered effusive praise on her followers, whom she applauded for “engaging the political process.”
Her modest response belied the sense of power Sisters showed on the stump.
Regardless of whether the Ryan Budget takes effect, the Nuns on the Bus left a lasting imprint on the nation’s consciousness by injecting issues like social justice and shared sacrifice – long considered taboo by politicians – into the political discourse.
The sisters have little time to think about that, though. They’re too busy crafting immigration policy, meeting with members of Congress, and even lobbying Stephen Colbert to pony up some of his Super Pac money to their organization, NETWORK (the last time they spoke, he respectfully told them that “they have to wait in line).
But hopefully they will at least find the time to reflect on the virtues they exuded in the spotlight, for the honesty, seriousness, and intelligence they showed are desperately needed from today’s leaders to solve the problems the sisters warned of on the trail.
Sam Rothbloom, StreetWise Editorial Intern