Weeks before Republican Paul Ryan was selected to run for vice president, Sister Simone Campbell — who heads NETWORK, a Catholic policy and lobbying group – hit the road to protest the so-called “Ryan budget” recently passed by the House of Representatives. Sister Simone says his budget is inconsistent with Catholic social teaching; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees. In this report, we ride along with Sister Simone and some of her sister nuns across the heartland on a bus trip designed to arouse public concern over what the Ryan plan would mean for social services in America, especially its slashing of programs for the poor.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to our take on one of the hottest controversies of this overheated summer. My two guests have some insights you’ll want to hear on faith and politics.
Sister Simone Campbell heads the Catholic activist group NETWORK, based in Washington, D.C. A lawyer and poet, she has long been a fearless advocate for the poor and marginalized in America. So fearless she recently took on two other combative Catholics, Bill O’Reilly and his alter ego, Stephen Colbert.
Robert Royal is founder and president of the Faith and Reason Institute, also in Washington, dedicated, in his words, to “the twin strands out of which America and any good and free social fabric are woven."
He is also editor in chief of this online publication, “The Catholic Thing,” and the author of many books, including “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.”
But first, buckle your seat belts. We’re going to take a road trip across America's heartland with “Nuns on the Bus.” And as you watch, remember, this cross-country journey took place two months before Paul Ryan became Mitt Romney’s choice for vice president.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Faith is like walking through a mist with your eyes wide open. Reminds me of when I was a kid in Long Beach and we’d stand out at the bus stop in the fog, and we’d try to tell by the headlights, was it a bus or was it a truck? You know, what was it? For me, looking down the road, I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. I just know this step is the right step.
BILL MOYERS: So it was that on a steamy morning earlier this summer, Sister Simone Campbell and a handful of other nuns gathered in Des Moines, Iowa to set out on a journey of faith and politics. Simone belongs to the order of the Sisters of Social Service. She is also an attorney who heads the Catholic Social Justice Lobby, NETWORK based in Washington DC.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Will we move beyond individualism back to the principles of our founding fathers, and mothers I’ve add, to be ‘we the people of the United States.’
BILL MOYERS: She found herself in a bit of hot holy water when the Vatican singled out Network for not promoting all of the church’s doctrines with equal verve. Suddenly the nuns were in the news.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: The Vatican chastised the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, America’s largest group of Catholic nuns for caring too much about the very poor, and not spending enough time crusading against abortion and same-sex marriage.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: This small group of nuns in the Catholic church is going feminist, and the Vatican is obviously, figure of speech, slapping them down.
NEWSCASTER: on CBS Evening News: Is this a group of radical feminists teaching outside the doctrines of the church?
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL on CBS Evening News: Oh heavens no, that’s just ridiculous.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL on the Colbert Report: We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship to people at the margins of our society. That’s all we do.
STEPHEN COLBERT: That’s a cheap applause line: Jesus. You can throw Jesus into anything and people are going to applaud.
BILL MOYERS: Sister Simone seized on her unexpected celebrity and with the support of thousands of individual donors, and a sympathetic labor union, she and four of her sisters-in-alms took to the road. From Des Moines to DC they would ride in solidarity with the poorest among us.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: NETWORK’s mission from its beginning is about economic justice issues. We were founded 40 years ago by 47 Catholic sisters to be the voice for and with those at the margins of society all over the country. And the thing that is utmost in our mind at NETWORK is the devastation that is being economically through the budget fight, and what will happen to programs that are so effective, that really help people and so, it seemed like a great convergence to have this notoriety used for the sake of our mission.
We know that the House-passed Ryan budget will devastate our nation. And most people don’t know what’s going on. And that’s why we decided to take to the road in our rather glorious bus.
BILL MOYERS: The primary message of their mission was to sound an alarm about the federal budget recently passed by the Republican Majority in the house. A budget titled “The Path to Prosperity,” by its author, Republican Congressman, and now Vice Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: What we’re doing is trying to let people know that the Ryan budget cuts social services, devastates social services, cuts food stamps. And while they’re cutting all the social services, well what are they going to do with the money? They want you to think they’re giving it to the deficit, but they’re not. What they’re doing is they’re cutting taxes for the wealthy.
BILL MOYERS: Especially galling to the sisters was that Paul Ryan, a fellow Catholic, was invoking the church’s doctrine of Social Teaching as justification for his priorities.
PAUL RYAN: I feel it’s important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues have been guided by my understanding of the church’s social teaching. Simply put, I don’t believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.
BILL MOYERS: Preferential option for the poor is an essential component of Catholic social teaching. It holds that the needs of the poor should always be of primary consideration, and is the foundation of the Church’s ideal that the moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
A test that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the Ryan budget fails. Declaring that it “will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment.” These cuts,” say the Bishops, “are unjustified and wrong.”
PAUL RYAN: Of course, there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. The work I do, as a Catholic holding office, conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day […] The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. The Holy Father, himself, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are, quote, "living at the expense of future generations" and "living in untruth," unquote.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I wish he would talk to us I’d like to say, “Well, how are thinking about this? What part of your Catholic Social Teaching did you miss?" Catholic social teaching is all about building community together.
BILL MOYERS: Three hours northeast of Des Moines, after stops in Ames and Cedar Rapids, the nuns stopped in the river town of Dubuque, where they visited a food pantry run by the Sisters of the Presentation. A charity already burdened by need, which would surly feel the weight of Ryan’s intended cuts to the food stamp program.
LYNN WAGNER: And we usually get anywhere from 15 to maybe 20,000 pounds of food at that time…
BILL MOYERS: Sister Lynn Wagner is the pantry’s director.
SR. LYNN WAGNER: We have the elderly who can’t make it on their social security payments or pension payments that they have. We have single-parent families; we have two-parent families. We have kids out of college that can’t get a job that pays enough to pay rent and all that. A lot of jobs are minimum wage, basic pay, and that just doesn’t cut it anymore. When groceries go up, and when milk is two bucks for a half gallon or something like that, it’s just, people can’t make it.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Most of these people that are using food stamps make a little bit above minimum wage and they still are in poverty. But the choice has been made to allow businesses to pay low wages. The idea is to keep costs down, increase productivity. But people have increased their productivity and their wages have not gone up. So from my point of view, this isn’t charity. This isn’t a handout. Whether you like it or not, 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 living wage. It’s a choice. Our choice recently of late has been to do the safety net, but now they want to do away with the safety net and say it’s the people receiving the benefits fault.
TEYA SEELEY: They’re punishing you, but your children are the ones that get punished. By myself, I would be fine, but I have two little ones. It ain’t about me, it’s them. Kids can’t fend for themselves; that’s what they depend on you to do. So…
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Can you imagine the struggle of that? To be able to care for your family and you can’t put food on the table? In the richest country? It breaks my heart, breaks my heart.
BILL MOYERS: Traveling east from Dubuque the nuns crossed the Mississippi, heading for the Lion’s Den – Paul Ryan’s home district in Wisconsin. They arrived at the Congressman’s office in Janesville to a heroes’ welcome.
KATE MILLER: When I was in Catholic school, nuns weren’t my heroes and I never thought I’d see the day where I forgave them and they were my total heroes, and that’s what’s happened.
WOMAN: This is really a courageous move on their parts, and the fact that they’re standing up for social justice. That’s what they’re talking about here, social justice for everybody. That is a major, courageous thing that they are doing.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: This is sister Marge Clark…
BILL MOYERS: Paul Ryan was still in Washington, where Congress remained in session, so the nuns were left to meet with his staff.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I want to talk to Paul Ryan, I want to understand what he sees, learn from that and see if there’s a way that we can be more effective, that we can claim our culture back, that we can claim our government back, that we can govern, not for stalemate or political points, but we can solve the problems, the serious problems of this 21st century, and talking to people who think differently when I can keep my patience is a really good way to do that.
BILL MOYERS: The meeting was cordial, and the confrontation the press would have loved to see never came to pass.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: What we are here to do is to lift up a different point of view and to say, “Let’s talk…"
The media is used to messages of fighting, and uses sports metaphors all the time. It’s who scored points, who’s down for the count, who committed a foul, who dropped the ball, who hit a homerun. And it has reduced politics, the sacred art of governance, which is about democracy, is at the heart of democracy. It’s reduced it to making the citizens couch potatoes. Because they think, “Oh, it’s a game, I’ll watch, I’ll wear my button, I’ll wear my team’s colors, I’ll root.” And then the next day life goes on, and a big Super Bowl every four years, like the Olympics, and, “Oh, well, that’s done.” But democracy is all about the need for us as responsible people to govern ourselves.
It’s we the people; it’s not we the politicians, or we the rich people or we Citizens United. It’s we the people. And we’re losing our democracy.
REPORTER: Here in Janesville, the nuns on the bus have made one of many stops they plan to take as they travel across the country to spread their religious beliefs in politics.
BILL MOYERS: From Janesville, the nuns carried their message across Wisconsin, then south into the Land of Lincoln.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: The issue isn’t that the people at the top are bad. The issue is not that this is class warfare. The issue is that we are all better when we all share.
BILL MOYERS: They called out and called on congressmen who voted for the Ryan plan while promoting their own “faithful budget.”
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: …that was created by the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities coming together…
BILL MOYERS: A fiscal plan that they say is more in line with the values of a just nation. Everywhere they went, a crowd was there to greet them. Catholics and non-Catholics alike gathered to bless the nun’s journey.
SR. DIANE DONOGHUE: When we get off the bus and people see us, and they’ve got signs of support, that is just absolutely an incredible connection.
BILL MOYERS: Sister Diane Donoghue calls herself a “persistent activist.” And she’s proved it by walking alongside the poor for the better part of sixty years, from India to East L.A.
SR. DIANE DONOGHUE: Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick. So it isn’t like we’ve invented something in the last 150 years. We go back to the teachings of Jesus. We are the church, the people of God. And so when you talk church you’re talking about people coming together in a faithful response, and looking at and responding to the signs of the times. And our signs of the times right now is that the people at the top, who have the loudest voice and the most money, have an incredible amount of influence in terms of priorities for people at the top to have a tax break is just totally unjust. People at the bottom need the revenue for services that really count.
BILL MOYERS: In the concrete desert of Chicago’s South Side, they come to an oasis called Mercy Housing. Built by private donations and public funds, as a home for nearly a hundred people who had been otherwise left to wander through this economic wasteland. That’s where the nuns met Shiesha Smith.
SHIESHA SMITH: I grew up on the west side of Chicago. Around my teenage years, I was placed into foster care due to my mother’s drug addiction. I witnessed a lot of bad things at an early age, but I maintained in school, I kept good grades, I was ranked 38th in my class and I went on to college. But I was pretty much just having a hard time with staying stable and I think that had a lot to do with growing up. It was kind of hard, you know, being stable so I took it on into my adulthood.
BILL MOYERS: Shiesha wound up living on the streets, seeking refuge in homeless shelters. At age 24, she was convicted of drug possession, and sentenced to two years probation. Seven years later, she has found stability at Mercy Housing.
SHIESHA SMITH: The first step in getting yourself stable is having somewhere to come to call home. A roof over your head that’s safe. An environment that’s safe. If I didn’t have Mercy, I wouldn’t be safe right now. I know a lot of us may say we need help, and we don’t. I know that. I know some of us may play the system for our own advantage. I know that too. However, I also know that there’s people out there that do need it. And we should stick together to allow them opportunity to live, and know what life is. Life is not about struggling day to day. It’s about living. Help people live. That’s what I would tell those people: help people live. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: The bus rolled on -- from Illinois to Indiana, then into Michigan and Ohio. The nuns on the bus were welcomed as messengers of good news, like the evangels of old. Everywhere they went, they visited the places where other women of faith are the few among the desperate many.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: We are called to be a bush that allows God to flame up and be a burning bush.
BILL MOYERS: Over and again, Sister Simone invoked the imagery of the Bible – stories of how faith can resurrect withered lives, despairing souls, and broken bodies.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: What it does is it says is that God has heard the cry of the people…
My image is Ezekiel’s dry bones, and that these bones have been so weary and hungry for a little flesh. But flesh isn’t enough. They need breath.
SR. CORITA AMBRO: We are 150 years old, and my first reason for coming to St. Augustine's was to work with the deaf
BILL MOYERS: In Cleveland, Ohio, Sister Corita Ambro breathes what life she can into the community around St Augustine's parish where she runs the church’s hunger center.
SR. CORITA AMBRO:
These people that come into this hunger center, I love each and every single one of them and they know that. And they’ll often come to me and say, “Can I have a hug today? I need a hug.” Because, they need somebody to let them know they loved.
And I found out the hard way that a touch is really important for so many of these people. I had a gentleman that came down into the hunger center and I gave him a huge hug and just, you know, thanked him for coming. One of the homeless men came up to me and he tapped me on the shoulder he says, “you know what,?” He said, “Sister, I’m angry with you.” I said, “Well, why? Why are you angry with me?” He says, “You know, I’ve been coming to eat here for three years and never once did you receive me the way you received him.” And I couldn’t. This gentleman had lice in his hair, his nose was on his beard, he was just a mess. He had at least five to seven coats on, and he stunk to high heaven. I just said to him, “Jimmy, one of these days,” because I didn’t know how to handle it. One of these days. And I remember going home and crying because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hug him. And it was the hardest thing in the world. And every day, he’d come in and say, “Is today the day? Is today the day?” And I couldn’t for a while. But through prayer and pushing myself I got to the day when I could give Jimmy a hug. And that day something happened inside my heart, which opened it up to something I can never explained, and ever since that day I’ve been able to hug any one of them that walks into this hall. No matter what they smell like, no matter what they look like, no matter who they are.
REGINALD ANDERSON: Oh, Heavenly Father…
BILL MOYERS: Reginald Anderson is one of the hundreds of people a day who have come to rely on the safe harbor of Saint Augustines, while they navigate the shallow waters of Cleveland’s economy.
REGINALD ANDERSON: ...in Jesus holy name we pray, Amen.
I wish that trickle-down effect would trickle on down to us. Because everyone says that the economy is getting better, but it is I guess for those that have the money to sit back and weather the storm. For those that don’t have the economic well withall to sit back and weather out that storm, it’s kind of hard. We live in the day to day realities of life, you know trying to pay bills, trying to eat, trying to feed our families, trying to clothe our families. You know, I don’t really pay much attention to what the experts say as far as the forecasting of the economy is. I look at the people around me and I see, are they eating? Are they paying bills? Are they getting evicted? And that’s my barometer of just how well the economy is doing.
If I could, if I could just simply wave a magic wand and put all the politicians in the shoes of the average American. Let them wonder how they’re going to pay next month’s rent or mortgage. I think once they saw just how hard it was for the average person, I think they'd have a whole different outtake on governing.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Every single place that we go, the hunger for an alternative is overwhelming.
And I was feeling that sense of the apostles saying, “What is this among so many?” I mean we’re five nuns on a bus, for heaven sakes. What is this among so many? And then I realized, if we just know we’re blessed, and if we let our hearts be broken, that’s the blessed and broken, something amazing will happen.
BILL MOYERS: From Ohio, their journey took them east through Pennsylvania with stops in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Hershey and Philadelphia. Then south into Maryland and Virginia. They stopped to visit with farmers who grow produce destined for local food pantries. And celebrate mass with a congregation of immigrants in Richmond. Finally, 14 days and some three thousand miles after they left Des Moines, the nuns on the bus pulled into the nation’s capitol.
DR. SAYYID SYEED: Nuns in the bus, speak not just for Catholics, not for Christians only, not for Jews, they speak for all of us.
SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: As great and educational as this trip was, as inspirational as this trip was, it was also a journey of heartbreak and anguish. And it was a journey of hope.
For me, this trip has been totally about touching the pain of the world as real for all these people we’ve seen, and being hopeful. We have hope that the pain of the world isn’t the end of the story. And that frees our imagination to think of our world in a new place. To think of this place between the partisan politics to a center, to think of a church where everyone could be cared for. To think of a lobby like ours, where we could really be voices for the folks who are at the margins. It frees up our imagination. The bus trip was a prophetic imagination, it turns out, and who knew it? It’s fabulous.