A Conversation with Sister Simone Campbell

Social activist Sister Simone Campbell—lawyer, poet, author and executive director of the Network social justice group—has long been a heroine of mine. Like many people, I first became aware of her through the “Nuns on the Bus” tours she led during the 2012 presidential election to draw attention to the needs of workers, immigrants, children and others who are vulnerable. Like many, I watched with interest as she addressed, with eloquence and aplomb, the Democratic National Convention. A year later, I had the chance to interview her for public radio about immigration reform.

I caught up with Sister Simone again recently when we were both speakers at a symposium at Penn State University, honoring the life work of another Catholic sister, the Benedictine author and peace activist, Joan Chittister. Sister Simone was fresh from another “Nuns on the Bus” swing through the south and southeast. Sister Simone is a member of the Sisters of Social Service religious community. We spoke the day after the first Democratic presidential candidate debate. In a wide-ranging conversation, she talked about the positive developments she witnessed on the most recent bus tour and hearing Pope Francis address Congress. She also shared her views on community, the nature of democracy and the upcoming presidential election.

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Sister Simone, you’re just back from another "Nuns on the Bus" tour. What were some of your goals on that trip?

The trip was in advance of Pope Francis’ visit. The theme was “Bridge the Divides: Transform Politics.” We realized in the new encyclical, "Laudato Si,'" what people haven’t talked about much is that he has over 30 paragraphs that talk about politics and the role of politics. He speaks about creating an economy of inclusion. We realized that you can’t have an economy of inclusion without a politics of inclusion. Our politics now are so divisive, so separating, so polarized, we realized we needed to say let’s bridge the divides. There is another way forward. Let’s transform how we do things.

Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have participated in debates. What have you taken away from the debates so far?

I thought that the Democrats did a bit better on staying on concrete, specific policy issues. I have been fairly shocked at the Republicans’ effort to either be sensational, to demonize and or just be plain old divisive. I haven’t heard real conversation about where our country is and what needs to be done, which I find fairly shocking. They spend more time trying to tear each other down. Quite frankly, this goes as much for the folks asking the questions in the debates as well as those participating in the debates. Could we be a little more serious about what is happening in our country and the serious concerns we have about coming together to make decisions? We have a long way to go to get anywhere near that.

Your message is always about building community, yet some of the presidential candidates, including some of the front-runners, seem to be separating out certain segments of our citizenry for criticism, such as undocumented immigrants and Muslims.

It’s pretty shocking the attitudes being portrayed. I think they think fear sells, that if we keep people afraid of each other, they [as candidates] can be victorious. But if we keep people afraid we can’t have a democracy. Democracy depends on the capacity of communities to come together to solve problems. Fear drives us apart. Fear may make us easier to control and creates false impressions of stereotypical groups. But people who are afraid cannot work in a democracy. A democracy is ‘we the people’ of the United States trying to form a more perfect union. We’re far from a perfect union at this point, but the effort to demonize any one group, this is plain wrong. I’ll confess my temptation is to demonize [those candidates].

How do you avoid that?

I don’t do a very good job avoiding it. But I really do try to see beyond their puffery, their effort at celebrity, and try to respect them as individuals. But I certainly don’t have respect for them as serious politicians.

When you spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2012, there were specific issues your group Network was working on, such as health care, immigration reform, adequate social programs. What are your issues now?

They haven’t changed much. We’re still doing the same work because we haven’t solved the problems. What’s happened with so called safety net programs, things like food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers, is that those programs are no longer safety net programs. They are business subsidies. Business is paying such low wages that many low-wage workers have to use those programs.

The statistic last year was that 67 percent of the households using safety net programs have at least one adult working fulltime. Excuse me? Work used to pay! I grew up in a household where my dad worked fulltime. My mother stayed home until all of us were in school and then she went back to work. But we lived on my dad’s salary. We lived simply, we were never destitute. We lived well. Work no longer pays adequately in our economy. So we are working to point out that the so-called safety net programs are business safety nets as much as individual safety nets. Our economy is no longer playing by the rules. Our people can’t play by the rules, work fulltime and support their family. And that’s wrong. So we continue to work on that. We continue to work on immigration. We have got to solve the immigration mess. We want to blame immigrants for our problems and at same time, we exploit them. It’s time we faced up to that as a nation. There are a variety of other programs we continue to work on—like housing policy, and trying to make health care work in our nation. It’s a challenge.

What would you do if, say, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is elected, two individuals who hold very different views from yours?

The temptation is to say I’ll flee to Canada. But no, the fact is we are here for the long haul. If you are president, you have to hear from the whole country. Democracy means you can’t ignore people you would rather pretend don’t exist. We the people will stand up together and challenge them. Look, I started working at Network during the Bush administration. I could never even get a call back from the White House during that period. But we stayed faithful to our message and worked on Capitol Hill and went around the country to create pressure to change some things. In a democracy, you can’t just say I’ll take my marbles and go home if there is something I don’t like in my community. Community is about us being together, we rely on each other and if something happens in my community I don’t like, you still stay at it, you stay engaged. I’m hoping we do elect someone who has care for all of us, those of us who are the everyday ordinary, working person. And I trust our democracy to work.

You were in Congress the day Pope Francis addressed both houses. What was that like?

I had the deep honor of being in the front row of the gallery directly across from where the pope was standing. It’s this paneled, dark wood room. On the one side were the Republicans in dark suits. The Democrats have so many more women they had a lot more color on their side. Above the podium where Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner were sitting, it said ‘In God We Trust.’ And then in walks Pope Francis by himself. He apparently eschewed, declined having the escort committee come in before him, which is the usual protocol. He just walks down the aisle by himself and goes up to the podium in his white cassock, standing there against this dark background. It was stunningly beautiful and captivating. But what was most captivating were his words. I took copious notes, just kept writing. The only thing was, every time he looked up, all of the press all around the chambers, their still cameras would click so you couldn’t hear a couple of the words because of click, click, click. But I have to say the spirit in that room of good will, of collaboration, of colleagues talking to each another, it was a palpably different feeling.

What were some highlights for you in his message?

The way he took some of our colloquialisms, "land of the free, home of brave," that he referred to Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, two great Catholics who have been fairly, how can I say? They have been a bone of contention a bit in the history our church. For me, Dorothy Day has been all about service and justice in the Catholic Worker movement. I’m a Sister of Social Service and she had visited our community before I entered, so it was like an affirmation of who we are. And then [his reference to] Thomas Merton was, for me, powerfully important because of [Merton’s] bridge between East and West. His exploration of Eastern meditation and dialogue with Eastern traditions is hugely important to our rediscovery of the contemplative life in the West. The fact that Pope Francis affirmed him when some of us [previously] had gotten into trouble for following Eastern meditation practices. The reason we got in trouble is that that that kind of thing is it makes bureaucrats nervous, because once you know the deeper truth of God in your life, you can’t be controlled by bureaucrats. And that’s enough to drive any bureaucrat nuts. But Pope Francis is not a bureaucrat.

Anything else?

I would also say his clarity around the economic crisis we’re feeling as being core and key. But I also think what was so important is his saying to Congress, I think you can do this. Giving them a vote of confidence that they can be their better selves and govern. That to me was an affirmation of their work. Now, they are still pretty much in a mess, but I’m holding on to the hope that they can find some encouragement to find their way forward.

There was a great deal of good will during the papal trip and afterwards. Do you think there will be any lasting effects?

Will folks have brain transplants and be totally different? No. But I know for myself, I feel a change and have more hope that faith can lead us forward. That  I have a responsibility to the community, that I am my brother’s and sisters’ keeper. We share responsibility for each other. Pope Francis spoke of that powerfully. So I do see a change. I felt that lifting my spirits and I’m sure it will lift other people’s spirits.

You often say traveling around the country, you see many positive developments, things that may not make the front page of The New York Times, but reflect the spirit moving in this country.

We were just in Nashville at a program called Magdalene House for women coming out of prison who have been prostitutes or drug and alcohol-addicted. It’s a two-year program and the woman who runs the program realized that after the two years are up, these women couldn’t get jobs because they are felons. So she started Thistle Farms. It’s a wonderful business [which sells handmade products such as lotions, soaps and lip balm] that all these women who graduate from Magdalene House are running. Jennifer, who is graduate of program, is in charge of giving tours, and Nikita, her job is to do the bottling of lotions. Nikita said she is the first one in her family ever own a home. She has made enough money and saved her money and gotten her kids back her, and they live in their own house. It’s a huge step forward.

In St. Louis, meeting a mothers-to-mothers group of African American moms who, after Ferguson, said we have to do something. Michael Brown was killed by white police person, what do we do? How do we change things? So these women are talking with white moms about what African American moms have to worry about that white moms don’t, especially moms of boys. Amy, who teaches at a university in St. Louis, told us she worries about her 8th grader and 10th grader. She quizzes them all the time about when you are stopped by police—not if, but when—you keep your hands out of your pockets, you keep your arms away from your body, you say ‘Yes, sir’ and No, sir,’ and you don’t give any teenage attitude. Her eighth grader asked her, ‘Mom, how long is this going to go on?’ She had to tell him, the rest of your life. That broke my heart. I was so touched by their courage in sharing their worry for their kids, their insight that if they talked to other mothers it could make a difference. So I realized if they have that kind of courage, I have to have some courage too, and stand with them in this process. We, the white folks, we have to wake up. That’s the challenge.

So lots of different positive happenings in many parts of the country.

I always say local groups like petri dishes for new ideas. We have to keep this culture going where new things can emerge. We were just in Lansing, Michigan, where they have this Cristo Rey Center, and they are trying to do a community health center and a food center and outreach to the community. In Little Rock, we were in a neighborhood south of the freeway. That’s considered the "bad" side of town. People there drove around to see how other neighborhoods looked. They realized they needed sidewalks and street lamps and things like that. But they decided the first thing they were going to do is plant seeds. Flowers and vegetables. They thought if they planted seeds, it’s evidence they are taking care of their property and the mayor could come and know their area is a good place to invest. And that’s what happened. So good things are happening, seeds are being planted everywhere.

Last year, your memoir, A Nun on the Bus, was published. What’s next for you?

That’s always a mystery of spirit. You never know. I didn’t think we’d have a bus trip this year, but we did. “Bridge the Divides: Transform Politics,” that will continue to be our theme. Pope Francis calls us to that. Probably next summer we’ll take another bus trip trying to take that message around the country. We’ll probably take it to both party’s conventions, so our billboard will be prominently displayed as a billboard for what’s best for our nation.

Wouldn’t that be something, Sister Simone Campbell addressing the Republican National Convention?

Let us pray to the Lord! That would be our dream. The thing is, our message is for everyone. It’s not political or partisan. It’s a message that we belong together.

Judith ValenteAmerica’s Chicago correspondent, is a regular contributor to NPR and “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.” Twitter:@JudithValente.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated Sr. Simone Campbell's position at Network; she is the executive director, not the founder.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joshua DeCuir
2 years 1 month ago
I find it odd that Sr. Simone claims that she doesn't want to be partisan, that her message is "for the 100%" & that she wants to build bridges, yet she & Network go out of their way to avoid supporting or working with pro-life groups to challenge the legal regime of abortion. What a bridge she could have built by urging support for the 20-week abortion ban that was recently introduced in the US Senate; what a bridge she could have built by challenging the "throw-away" culture epitomized by Planned Parenthood. Instead, she refuses to speak about those controversies. Why? Why not ask Sr. Simone what she thought of Pope Francis's visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor & his explicit pledge of support for their legal case - which Sr. Simone has steadfastly refused comment on. I would have liked to have seen Sr. Simone asked those questions.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 10 months ago
Sister Simone’s book, “A Nun On The Bus”, notes poverty drives the abortion rate. The abortion rate has fallen overall, but not for the poor. The Sisters of Social Service, according to their web site, “come together to fulfill the Gospel call to care for the poor...” On the road to Emmaus perhaps it would also be difficult to recognize a nun on the bus.

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