Sister Simone Campbell on What Drives ‘Nuns on the Bus’

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Sister Simone Campbell waves as she steps off the bus in Ames, Iowa, June 18, 2012 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus. Our producer Andrew Fredericks is on the road with the nuns, and managed to squeeze this interview between visits to social service sites and congressional offices.

Andrew Fredericks: How did “Nuns on the Bus” come about?

Sister Simone Campbell: After the Vatican issued the document censuring the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and named their collaboration with Network as a problem organization, we thought, ‘how can we use this attention to be of service to the people that we care about?’ Having this much attention — we’re not used to that as Catholic sisters. It seemed like a great convergence to have this notoriety used for the sake of our mission.

We don’t know who first thought of the bus, but the idea caught like wildfire. May 14th we had the idea, and June 17th we launched the thing. It’s a miracle.

Fredericks: Why the focus on the Ryan budget?

Sister Simone: Network’s mission from its beginning is about economic justice issues. So the thing that’s utmost in our minds is the devastation being done economically through the budget fight. What will happen to programs that we care passionately about that are so effective, that really help people? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that the budget is an immoral document. I’ve just said it’s wrong; they’ve said it’s immoral.

Fredericks: One of the things the Ryan budget would cut is food stamps, which you call “business subsidies.” What do you mean by that?

Sister Simone: Many of the people who get food stamps are working full or part-time. So from my point of view, this isn’t charity. This isn’t something that we do because we don’t like to see hungry kids. Of course, it’s wrong to see hungry kids. But the fact is, these are business subsidies. We have a choice as a nation. We can either provide a real safety net so that workers can eat, or we can mandate a living wage. It’s a choice. Part of me would much rather go after a living wage. Our choice has been the safety net, but now they want to do away with that, and they blame the people receiving the benefits. Actually, it’s the people paying low wages that are the problem. But the choice has been made to allow businesses to pay low wages, to keep costs down and increase productivity. Many of these people that are using food stamps make a little bit above minimum wage and they still are in poverty. So food stamps are a business subsidy.

Fredericks: You call Ryan out on his interpretation of Catholic social teaching. Is there room for difference on this?

Sister Simone: Well, there’s room, but he’s got to be accurate! If you read Pope Benedict’s Charity in Truth, the encyclical from 2009, it’s abundantly clear that Paul Ryan is totally off base. Charity in Truth talks about how individual justice is one aspect. Then there’s social justice, which is equally important. Individual and social justice together makes the whole teaching. Paul Ryan talks a lot about the individual. His whole budget is about the individual and about shifting money to the top. Pope Benedict then goes on to talk about responsible economics, saying that corporations are not only obligated to their shareholders — they owe a duty to their workers, to their consumers, to the earth. This is the antithesis of what Ryan’s talking about.

Catholic social teaching is all about building community together, and he’s missed that point dramatically. I wish he would talk to us.  That’s what I’d like to do is to talk to him.  I’d like to say, “How are you thinking about this? What part of your Catholic social teaching did you miss? Did you ever hear about community?” Maybe we can get a summit.  That’d be fun.

Fredericks: Tell us about your own personal journey. Who are  your greatest influences?

As a kid growing up in Southern California, my sister and I were really influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was our hero. We couldn’t understand what was going on in the South.  It seemed so horrible, watching it on the TV. My dad was an engineer, so he liked gadgets. We had an early television in the neighborhood and everybody’d come over and we’d watch the news. I couldn’t believe the courage of those black kids going to school in a white community. I couldn’t understand how a white community could be hostile to people.

And then, we had this magical camp called Camp Mariastella where there were girls from all economic sectors in the Los Angeles basin, the wealthy and the poor and tract home kids like me. I had three friends; Jennifer, Lourdes and myself — we were the three musketeers. Jennifer lived in Bel Air, in a fancy house with a swimming pool, Lourdes lived in East L.A. in a barrio, and I lived in a tract home in Long Beach. I think that whole idea of coming together beyond the usual walls and boundaries was really magic for me.

Fredericks: What does being Catholic mean to you?

Sister Simone: To me it’s that amazing history of spiritual practice, social engagement, witnessing to the fact that Jesus lives in our world now and says that there is enough if we share. The miracle of the loaves and fishes — one of the accounts says 5,000 men ate.  Well, the reason they only counted the men was the women and children knew it was the women who had brought all the food! Only the guys thought it was a miracle, the women knew it was about breaking bread and sharing it. This isn’t biblical — this is just my interpretation of it, but to me the miracle was sharing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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  • Becky

    Nice response to the Vatican and analysis of the Ryan budget

  • Rmurphy60

    Nuns on the Bus – a great way to get the attention of society to the poverty in one of  the richest countries of the world – a scandal! Sr. Campbell’s passion for justice for the poor is inspiring and inflames the best of longings within the human spirit. Right on Sr. Simone and the Nuns on the Bus!

  • Kysuze

    I think this is a great idea! I hope a lot of Catholics will support the “nuns on the bus,” or even ride along with them.

  • Maggie

    I’m sending them a donation today!

  • Make38

    I attended last evening’s presentation of nuns-on-the-bus. The only sister who had a profound message
    was the novice who currently works as a social worker in Kensington. The novice
    gave a face, name, pain to the poor. I am extremely concerned about the other
    sister’s presentations.

    Yes, I heard about the sister who got her nose stuck in the
    door of the bus. Yes, I heard the sister who was on many talk/radio shows. Yes,
    I heard the sister who cried when a poor man wrote her a money order for $2.50.
    Yes, I heard how each sister loves traveling on a bus, loves working with one
    another, has a 12 seat bus for 5 sisters, hated the heat in one location and
    terminated the presentation because of the heat. I tried to picture Mother
    Theresa on the stage last evening…and, I could not – Mother Theresa would be
    out in the slums, the ghettos, the inner city streets caring for the poor, not
    giving cutesy versions of their traveling adventures.

    The sisters talked about diversity, yet there were no people
    of color on the stage. The sisters talked about inclusion of all religions, yet
    there were no rabbis or religious leaders from other faiths.

    And, perhaps the most disturbing event last evening was the
    slide showing all four sisters faces among gold stars. Jesus would never have
    his face up on a slide…Jesus’ face would be reflected in the eyes of the
    suffering He is caring and loving.

    The sisters were well dressed, in fashion with earrings.
    Fine, I get it. The sisters want to be a part of us. Except, the part of us the
    sisters are using for attention are no where to be found in their

    If the sisters could easily raise $150,000, why not give
    that money to the poor and instead take the train or better yet walk. The
    message would be stronger.

  • Jsland1

    Individualism has become almost a doctrine fundamentally in contradiction to socially aware action. Social justice concerns carried out by groups and governments are defined as leading to socialism. But the old Marxist socialism has no real similarity to social justice or environmental stewardship: it’s really just all the values and characteristics of Individualism viewed from a larger scale. It doesn’t examine the condition of the environments we surround ourselves with, in which we live and move. Socialism describes a single individual society, describes its attributes, needs, behaviour, and positions all individuals in it in order that they favour the larger society. Like pieces of a large puzzle all that’s important is the end result, the society. But the balanced life and health which is a just society reveals a new value, an environmental one which balances the individual with the many environments in which he and she lives and moves and has being. We could say that social Justice, physical health,  balanced bio-spheres, a healthy democracy, are some of those environments which “surround us permeatingly” and which we need to take care of carefully is we ourselves are to live as free Individuals. Individuals and Environments. Society is just one of many environment in which we live and need to care for in many ways.

  • Anonymous

    People in my town feel very negatively toward socialism.  The “socialist view” is a dirty one only in a few circles. We must articulate and stand behind a viable and uncompromising socialism, one that is firmly and unequivocally on the side of working men and women (or the unemployed and underemployed who want to work).

    Mr. Reagan’s lie about welfare notwithstanding, together, AFDC and
    Food Stamps are by far the largest items of the welfare budget. Yet in
    1992, AFDC formed only 1 percent of the combined state and federal
    budgets. Food stamps also took up 1 percent.

    If you expand the definition of “welfare” to include all one-way
    transfers of benefits for which no services or repayment are required in
    exchange (such as student grants, school lunches and pensions for needy
    veterans) then welfare takes up only 12 percent of the combined
    The Ryan budget bills itself as non-socialist.

  • Yaz

    You gotto love the nuns.  So nice to hear Catholic Social Teaching being talked about in the public forum.  No where does Jesus or CST say lets help the rich and screw over the workers and the poor.  Actually, I think it is quite the opposite.  More please. y

  • Tabitha Purr

    Well spoken with plain language. Are you listening out there Mitt Romney? It is like we have gone back in time to the 19th Century robber barons. Right on Sister Simone Campbell! Maybe some of these neo cons will wake up and see how their rapacious greed is ruining our country.

  • Harlot_of_Babylon

    I noticed she was talking about excessiveness on the Lawrence O’Donnell show. Is she serious? The Catholic church is the most excessive institution in history. Has this women heard of the Vatican????

  • Harlot_of_Babylon

    Nuns on a Bus is a group of left wing puppets who have rejected the real teachings of the Bible. The Book of Revelation depicts the Catholic church as the Harlot of Babylon. A left wing, Bill Moyers following group of liberal hacks on a bus.

  • FriendBill

    Have you ever read a book called Uncle Sam’s Plantation or heard of it’s author Star Parker. i think this book would give you a better understanding of what public subsidizing does to the minds of people in poverty. Another book called A Framework For Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne would enlighten your passion for the poor. I am trying to do my part by using private funds to run a field trip program for kids called The LITBUS. I do not want the government’s help because they would only run it into the ground and ruin it much the same as they have done thus far. Let me know what you think. I enjoyed seeing you on O’Riley this evening.

  • Christian

    I just watched you on Fox news! I am shocked you sided with the President that believes in abortion, and put money first! Is that what Jesus would do?

  • Roger

    As a catholic i was appalled at the lack of understanding sister simone had of the poor,it is much better to raise the poor up with a job than to keep them suppressed with welfare. Her support of Obama who embraces gay marraige and Abortion shows she could not possible be in line with the church teaching. she has not done Catholic Charities any favors as being a spoke person for them.

  • Roger

    she may call herself a sister but i dont think she has ever heard of the Catholic Church what a disapointment

  • Roger

    Any true christian would be schocked, your not alone we should pray for her

  • Antonio Sosa

    Shame on Sister Simone! Is she getting paid by Soros?!! Soros funds such anti-Catholic, “Catholic” “nuns”!
    No wonder the Pope reprimanded some of these “nuns” (Soros/Obama’s operatives)!
    Sister Simone is helping Obama multiply poverty and increase the number of poor people by helping him manipulate people to force us to swallow the economy-killing, FREEDOM-killing, pro-abortion Obamacare scam!
    Does Sister Simone support Obama’s pro-abortion mandate?!!!
    May God help us defend ourselves — and our children and grandchildren — from Obama and anti-Christian Soros/Obama operatives like Sister Simone!

  • Tngranny

    I was raised a Catholic Sister Simone is way off the Jesus she is serving is not the Jesus of the bible to think she would side with someone who thinks nothing about lies and challenges religious freedom the sanctity of marriage which God ordained Gen:1:28 since when do we put a President above God Jesus came to set the captives free not to put them in bondage of Goverment programs that give them no dignity that’s not the Jesus I serve and as for heaven the last time I read revelations it’s said liars had no place there

  • Catherine Mason

    Did you actually READ what she said? People who are in poverty HAVE JOBS. It is just that the people who are paying them for the jobs are not paying them enough, so the rest of us have to subsidize them (or rather their employers). It is the same when an employer does not pay for healthcare and then the rest of us subsidize that employer by paying for medicaid.

  • Suzanne Losee

    Well said! Sr. Campbell’s work is inspiring. Calling attention to our poor in “rich” America! Republicans want to make rich people richer and echo Marie Antionette’s “let the poor who have no bread “Eat cake!”

  • Suzanne Losee

    You do not know anything about government programs.

  • peeper

    do we just mouth the words or do we embrace the concept!

  • Kathryn McHenry

    We have just seen Sister Simone on your show and consider her a gift to our troubled country. We have been longing to hear someone express serious concern about the wealth gap and how those at the bottom are suffering while those at the top are flourishing. We are especially put off when someone says over 40% do not pay taxes without qualifying this as Income Tax. And why doesn’t the 40% pay? They make so little they do not “qualify”. They do manage to pay many other taxes, however, for which they are not given credit. What can we do to help Sister Simone to reach both the powerful and the needy? We must say that we disagree vehemently with Mr. Royal as he isymbolizes this terrible imbalance. Thank you for all you do — your interviews are so timely and so important for all of us to hear. Gratefully, Kathryn McHenry and Bob Burrows

  • Claudia Windal

    Thank you, Bill for this great discussion re: the poor and our responsibility to do something. Sister Simone is an example for all of us Sisters reminding of and others of the ongoing needs of the poor. I’m with you, Sister, the miracle was sharing, something we don’t do well.
    God bless you and your ministries.

  • Independent Expert

    The guest that was debating this issue with Sister Simone just wants to bring the country back to the Gilden Age when corporations ran the country even more than today. Jesus would not have liked that. Also it is really makes me sick to see a conservative talk about people working together to solve poverty after the conservatives have pursued the southern strategy for generations. And they are again pursuing it.

  • Chantal CC

    Roger, I’m shocked you can’t spell or use correct punctuation. God will get you for that!

  • A former RC priest

    I have just heard Sr. Campbell at the DNC. OMG! A woman religious that, with the deepest respect, stood up to the NCCB and the Vatican and said “No!”
    I would not be surprised if she is chastized by her bishop, or silenced by Rome.
    American Catholics need to do the same. Just say “no.” Catholics need to get involved in the institutional church. Sadly, the institution will only listen when the pews are empty and the money runs out.

  • Jeri Buffington

    Reading Galatians 5:22-23, I cannot help but reflect on the “spirit” of today’s Republican Party…so much anger, hate, divisiveness, and fear…is this really indicative of the “spirit” of God? God bless Sister Simone and the rest of the Nuns on the Bus for standing up for social justice and for their devotion to “[our] tired, [our] poor…[our] huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”