The next time I hear someone groan about the current political climate as an excuse for his or her own indifference, I’m going to respond with three words: Sister Simone Campbell.
Campbell is a Catholic nun, an attorney and executive director of NETWORK, a national lobbying group of sisters who fight for economic and social justice. She and a handful of other sisters are in the thick of a 14-day, nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour across America. They are protesting the Republicans’ Ryan budget because it would further hurt those Americans who already are suffering.
In every news conference, interview and “Friend Raising” rally, Campbell rattles off what Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget would do:
–Raise taxes on 18 million hardworking low-income families while cutting taxes for millionaires and big corporations.
–Push the families of 2 million children into poverty.
–Kick 8 million people off food stamps and 30 million off health care.
The Nuns on the Bus are getting the kind of media attention that would make a presidential candidate swoon. Dozens of news organizations — including Time, The New York Times, CNN and NPR — have interviewed Campbell. She giggled in recounting her recent stint on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” on which she elicited applause by quoting Gospel and invoking Jesus.
The National Catholic Reporter described the turnout for Nuns on the Bus in South Bend, Ind., as “the same sort of enthusiastic crowds that often greet Notre Dame teams coming home after big wins on the road.” When they rolled into Cleveland on Tuesday, they were cheered like rock stars by more than 400 mostly gray-haired women squeezed into St. Joseph Center.
Maggie Lash, a former nun in Cleveland, was in Tuesday night’s audience. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I was surprised by the turnout,” she said, “especially when I looked at the makeup of the crowd. I don’t mean just that most of them were older. Three-fourths of them were nuns.”
Campbell walked to the lectern and got right to it.
“Too often,” she told the crowd, “we sit back and just watch.” She shook her head. “This is about the future of our nation.”
And this: “The richest nation in the world isn’t bankrupt. We’re bankrupt of political leadership.”
Repeatedly, she was interrupted by thunderous applause, even when she talked about such lofty goals as “radical acceptance.”
“We have to open our hearts, even to John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell,” she said, grinning, “all the people I want to think are God’s mistakes.”
She waited for the laughter to die down.
“The God in me resides in the God in them.”
Heads started to nod.
One could argue that right after the Vatican targets you as a “suspect organization,” it’s probably not the best strategy to launch a bus tour and outshine the bishops.
Or is it?
Campbell made light of the Vatican’s scrutiny of her organization by describing the size of NETWORK’s staff: “Fourteen, maybe?” she said. She leaned into the microphone: “Whoa.”
The sisters were stunned at first by the Vatican’s description of them and by the ensuing media coverage, but they quickly decided to take their cause to the people.
“We needed a bigger imagination,” Campbell said. “And we had to ask outsiders for help. Catholics are too depressed to deal with this.”
They raised $150,000 for the bus tour in 10 days.
Lash, who has been a teacher for many years, said the event affirmed her own role in the world.
“I used to feel guilty that I was teaching in a suburban high school … rather than working for social justice somewhere else in the world. But we’re all called to work for social justice. We just do it in different ways. I was called to teach students to be agents of change. No matter what we’re doing, we can all be nuns on the bus.”
After the rally, Campbell hung around to greet the many people who wanted to pose for a picture or give her a hug. I asked whether she was getting braver over time. She looked puzzled, so I nodded toward the lectern and said, “Many would say you were pretty brave up there.”
She shrugged her shoulders and pointed to her heart.
“When it comes from the inside out, it’s not brave,” she said. “It’s just who you are.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.
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