Nuns return to get folks on board the bus to help the needy

10/13/2012
BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

God bless Sister Simone Campbell. She and a cadre of Ohio-based nuns are taking it to the people in the fervent hope that the powerful will take notice.

The Nuns on the Bus touring sensation is back in the Buckeye State, including a scheduled stop in Toledo this morning at Assumption Outreach Center on Page Street, after a swing through Ohio last summer. Sister Simone and Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby she heads, put the bus on the road.

The 66-year-old woman is a disarming dynamo who joined the Sisters of Social Justice in college, spent nearly two decades as a lawyer helping working-poor people on family law cases, and later traveled the world as general director of her religious order.

Today, her calling as a passionate advocate for the powerless intersects with presidential politics.

When Congress moved to give tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of social programs for the poor, Sister Simone mobilized a campaign to give voice to the indigent. She raised the profile of poverty in America during an election year when the issue wasn’t even on the radar.

From June to July, she embarked on a nine-state bus trip across the heartland with other Catholic nuns. Their purpose was to dissect proposed cuts in federal programs and demonstrate how they would affect low-income families.

The bus stopped at churches, homeless shelters, food pantries — including the Padua Center in Toledo — and other locations where nuns work tirelessly with the needy. The traveling sisters quickly attracted media attention.

Sister Simone spoke at the Democratic National Convention. But her message, she says, could have been given at the Republican National Convention just as well.

“I am my sister’s keeper,” she said pointedly. “I am my brother’s keeper.”

The outspoken nun and her sister crusaders have earned the right to be heard and heeded. They have spent their lives responding to community needs. They see the difficulties and suffering daily.

They fear the human consequences of a budget proposal authored by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. He considers it his signature achievement.

Yet the sisters are frustrated that the Republican and Democratic tickets have been unwilling to address the plight of Americans who would bear the brunt of the proposed budget cuts.

“In a way they [politicians] are hiding from it,” Sister Simone said before the Ohio Nuns on the Bus tour began its trek across the state this week.

“They intimate what a struggle the economy is, how people are losing ground, without ever mentioning poverty,” she told me in a phone interview. “They’re afraid if they say it out loud it’ll be more real. But the longer they don’t say anything about poverty in America, the more real it becomes.

“The reality is, people working at minimum wage still qualify for food stamps,” she said. “They don’t have money to put a roof over their heads and put food on the table. They work hard, but life is always a worry, always a scramble.”

She rejected the notion that the working poor — 46 million and counting in the United States — live in poverty out of laziness. They’re destitute because they can’t get jobs that pay decent wages, she said. They survive on a safety net of assistance programs.

Sister Simone believes it is morally wrong to jeopardize vital services to the most vulnerable in a skewed attempt to reduce the deficit.

The Ryan budget, endorsed by Mitt Romney, she said, “set up this total undermining of government services as a way for there to be additional tax cuts for the wealthy. Our sisters serve people who live at the economic margins.”

Proposing new hardships for those with nothing, while reducing income taxes for the 2 percent with everything, motivated the nun to take a road trip. We can’t change policy or minds unless we talk to each other, Sister Simone said.

She regretted that neither the Republican nor Democratic presidential campaign accepted an invitation to join the bus tour conversation in Ohio.

“We’ll videotape it and get it to them via the Internet, so they can see what they missed,” she said. So they can get a clue about the growing ranks of impoverished Americans who are desperate for a hand up, not a slap down.

Bless her.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com