religiondispatches.org, July, 2012
Nuns on the Bus:
2700 Miles, Nine
States, and a Rock Star DC Welcome
By MARY E. HUNT
buses are fixtures on Capitol Hill, but the arrival at the Methodist
Building of Nuns on the Bus: Nuns Drive for Faith, Family
and Fairness in noonday heat to the cheers of their colleagues
had to be a first. Hustled out by handlers like rock stars, the
half-dozen nuns (and one woman who was not a nun but joined the
trip anyhow) made their way to a flag-backed stage to join other
interfaith leaders in prayer and speeches.
Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service and the Executive
Director of NETWORK: A
National Catholic Social Justice Lobby the sponsoring organization,
appeared flabbergasted and delighted by the hundreds who turned
out in the midst of the DC regions massive power outage
to welcome them home. Prophets in their own landin this
case, lobbyists among lobbyistsusually get a mixed reception
Fourth of July tourists wondered what was happening, a good question
for a broader audience.
Why did screaming young Hill staffers, dozens of Muslim women
in head scarves, elderly people
(both men and women), social justice workers, and lobbyists converge
to fête a group of women
who traveled 2,700 miles through nine states to visit soup kitchens?
I am sure the riders will tell
the story in full detail once they get their land legs back, and
I know video crews accompanied
them. So for now, I offer a word of explanation about what I think
the trip means in the big
picture of religiously influenced social change.
Bishops in Limos?
Several factors converged to spark the nuns creativity.
A major one was the passage of House
Republican Paul Ryans (R-WI) budget, cutting $36 billion
from food assistance programs without
trimming the military budget or increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Mr. Ryan claimed that his
ideology was faith-based; indeed that Catholic social teaching
justified his approach to push poor
people to fend for themselves. The NETWORK people simply did not
see it that way, nor did a
sizable group of Georgetown University faculty who called Ryan
on the carpet. Even the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a tepid letter from
their president, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan from New York, indicated
some displeasure. (Mr. Ryans theological advisor is probably
out of a job by now, or should be.)
Another factor was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faiths
issued against the
Leadership Conference of women religious. NETWORK was mentioned
explicitly as part of the Vatican-perceived problem, related to
the support some nuns had provided the Obama administration on
health care legislation over against the tantrums of the bishops.
That the bishops were embarking on their much-ballyhooed Fortnight
of Freedom campaign was a minor themealthough the coincidence
in timing resulted in many comparisons, mostly unfavorable, to
the men. One blogger joked
about the launch of a bishops in limos PR counteroffensive.
I suspect, though I have no privileged evidence, that the real
push for the nuns was a groundswell
of support from Catholics and others who realize that it is past
the time to listen passively to the
bishops rant and rave about religious freedom while running roughshod
over other peoples rights.
It is tricky business in the increasingly lay-led Church to put
too much emphasis on any one group,
especially the nuns on whom some people mistakenly confer a quasi-clerical
status (nuns are
consecrated to religious life, but are not clergy). But in this
instance, the bus adventure captured
many imaginations and functioned to demonstrate how the free exercise
of religion can achieve
many good ends for those who will bear the cost.
Resetting the National Moral Compass
I must admit that I thought the whole plan rather hokey at first.
The nuns bus almost crossed
paths with the Romney campaigns motor coach somewhere in
Wisconsin. The Obama bus trip
will transverse similar terrain to assure the electorate that
our top guys can eat road food and grind out the miles, proving
their common man bona fides. I was not sure what these
simple-living women were thinking of to do the same thing. But
they planned their itinerary to stay with friends and religious
communities along the way, to visit congressional offices and
life-giving projects in which they, their sisters, and colleagues
are already engaged ahead of budget cuts. Heres what I think
happened and why.
First, the NETWORK women and their friends demonstrated the power
of women in the
political/social system. Rather than take the bait and defend
themselves as members of
communities that belong to LCWR, these women ignored churchmen
and instead shone a bright
light on the needs of poor and marginalized people that are being
met by lay-led ministries (again,
nuns are lay people) across the country.
Starting in Des Moines, Iowa, and ending in Northern Virginia
before they crossed the bridge in
their triumphant return to DC, the bus pilgrims visited all manner
of projects. In Dubuque, they
saw what several womens religious communities are doing
together to aid newly arrived
Americansimmigrants. In Milwaukee, they ate at St. Bens
meal program, meeting with people
who are marginalized and those who dedicate their lives to help
them. In Chicago, they visited
Mercy Housing, where Mercy Sisters and collaborators develop,
finance and operate affordable,
program-enriched housing communities for families, seniors, and
people with special needs.
None of this is glamorous work, and the dining is not gourmet,
but it is the stuff of what will move
this country from greed to generosity. Many women, including nuns,
are in the vanguard, willing
to pay the price. Seventy-five members of Congress recorded lovely
messages of congratulations for the nuns as the trip ended. I
am sure many of them wish they had been aboard so that the good
will generated by the nuns might rub off on them. Their messages
were diverse and heartfelt, as if they, too, had seen the nations
moral compass reset for a change.
The Fortnight Fizzles
And then theres the notable fact that the nuns eclipsed
the bishops Fortnight of Freedom
without even mentioning it. Apparently official Church efforts
are going on all over the country as
I write, but enthusiasm has been so low that even the bishops
arent saying much about it. Even
critics have ignored it. So much for a large scale buy-in to their
argument that the government
insisting on having insurers offer contraception without a co-pay
would eradicate religious liberty
as we know and love it. Not even the Vaticans brand new
Opus Dei Fox News communication
strategist Greg Burke can spin their way out of this failure.
Coming on the heels of the conviction
of a Philadelphia priest for enabling sexual predators to
continue in ministry, what virtually every
other diocese did as well, appetite for the bishops ideology
is all but gone.
With loads of money and all of the apparatus of the institutional
Church to back it up, the
Fortnight (whose idea was that for a catchy American word?) seems
to have fizzled. One event in
Boston, for example, featured a large stage, dozens of bleachers,
and eight speakers lined up to
address the crowd. The audience numbered about 30. Even Timothy
Dolan at St. Patricks
Cathedral in New York City, on the kickoff day of the Fortnight,
only gathered 250 people. The
nuns got that many in small towns across the country at stop after
The bus trip also proved that there is a deep hunger across generations
for this kind of faith-based
organizing. The crowd in DC was surprisingly younger than I anticipatedas
if every volunteer
and internship program in town, every congressional office and
lobby group that hires young
people had let out for lunch. This is a welcome but too-rare phenomenon,
a hint that something
new is afoot as many people come to realize what freedom for all
really costs, and are willing to
pay for it with their lives.
The eldest bus rider was Sister of Social Service Diane Donoghue
who, at 81, has done her share of social work. She minced no words
in calling the Ryan Budget immoral, with the confidence and
conviction that I have come to expect from experienced women who
fear no one. When Diane was referred to as the senior member
of the firm, I jokingly assured the nun next to me that
there would be a seat for her on the bus next year. She replied
softly that she is 88 and just back from a solidarity visit to
Cuba. Why was I not surprised?
A final important dimension of this improbable adventure was the
outpouring of interfaith (and
non-faith) respect and solidarity. All across the country, people
who responded to the nuns on the
bus came from a variety of traditions and no faith whatsoever.
They seem to be attracted to the
womens gumption to lace up their sensible shoes and get
to the work of social change while caring for people in the process.
The Future of Activism
The DC rally included a greeting from Dr. Sayyid Syeed, National
Director for the Office for
Interfaith & Community Alliances of the Islamic Society of
North America with whom
NETWORK collaborates. The Society sponsored a DC prayer vigil
in solidarity with the nuns last
month. It was refreshing to see dozens of women in head scarves
in DC applauding the women
who had left their veils behind some decades ago, yet all moving
in a similar direction on faith,
family and fairness.
This Muslim group represents a newly energized community, welcome
partners with progressive
Jews, progressive Catholics, progressive Protestants, and so many
others who form a huge and
increasingly active network of people working for religiously-inspired
social change. This
collaborative approach, rather than denomination or tradition-specific
efforts, is the wave of the
future. The nuns embody it since they are lay people, not official
representatives of a church, and
are more than willing to work in effective coalitions.
Finally, the message is clear. As the nuns chant it, reasonable
revenue for responsible programs,
the message of the Faithful Budget Campaign, makes a good deal
of sense. Question Austerity is another of their mantras.
Anyone who works in social change realizes that it takes not just
grace, as Simone Campbell put it so bluntly, but money. There
is no way to justify cutting programs for those who are poor without
at the same time expecting that people who are wealthy will pay
more than the current tax structures dictate. Messengers like
the nuns, who say that without apology, are not naïve. Their
rock-star days are numbered; their work is cut out for them.
At the 200th anniversary celebration of the Loretto Community
this year, Kim Klein, grassroots
fundraiser extraordinaire and a Protestant co-member of Loretto,
put her finger on a big reason
that relates to why religious communities, which might seem anachronistic
to some, are still and
increasingly popular. The world does not need experts to make
more money or more computers,
Kim observed, as we have enough of those. The world needs experts
in human relationships if we
are to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
We need communities of people who embrace the world, who hug
people to life, not to death as Simone Campbell put it.
If you can still say that after a two-week bus trip, no wonder
people are inspired and willing to ante up for a ticket.
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