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‘Nuns on the Bus’ passes through Cleveland

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On June 17th the Catholic social justice lobbying group NETWORK launched a 15 day Nuns on the Bus tour. (As befits their budding rock star status, they are selling a tour shirt as well.) They are speaking out against the House Republican budget because, as they write: “When the federal government cuts funding to programs that serve people in poverty, we see the effects in our daily work. Simply put, real people suffer. That is immoral.”

On Tuesday they stopped in Cleveland where, as they do at each stop, they engaged in four activities: Spending time at a site where women religious are working (emphasizing a hands-on, feed the hungry/clothe the naked vision), meeting with at least one political leader, meeting with the media and holding a “friendraiser” – a combination open meeting and rallying of the faithful to the priorities being highlighted. The friendraiser had a full and enthusiastic house:

Sister Simone Campbell, fresh from an appearance on The Colbert Report, kicked off the program. She described the enthusiasm she’d been seeing and spoke of a hunger for faith-based actions that inspire the country. Sister Marge Clark followed, and continued Campbell’s theme. She spoke of how the programs the sisters run depend in part on state funding, federal funding, and other forms of public support. These public/private partnerships are a major part of the social safety net. Bloodless economic language from Ayn Rand acolytes like Paul Ryan tends to obscure the substantial hardship that slashing those programs will have on those at the margins.

The sisters spoke of encounters they’d had since beginning the tour: With a homeless and pregnant teenager, or of a child with a gunshot wound rushed to a hospital they’d just visited – the kind of people it’s depressing to hear about and we’d prefer to not see. The point was not to bring everyone down, but to emphasize that there are people in dire need who exist independently of our desire to ignore them. Cuts to programs that serve those populations are, in these women’s reckoning, deeply immoral.

After some brief comments from Sister Mary Ellen Lacey, NETWORK field coordinator Jean Sammon spoke. She exhorted the audience to be engaged; one way to do so is Common Good 2012, an initiative focused on protecting social service programs and pressing candidates to support them as well.

While Common Good 2012 focuses on Catholic voters, The Faithful Budget is an interfaith campaign opposing efforts to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Campbell pressed the message “reasonable revenue for responsible programs” to emphasize that they believe our fiscal house has to be in order, but that there are ways of doing so that will not put the greatest burden on those who are most at risk.

The gathering had both religious and secular themes. Campbell, who appeared to be first among equals and is an appealing and energetic speaker, spoke of letting God flame up in our lives. She said each of us can be a burning bush, but also spoke of the need to respect those whose policies we oppose. She said we can struggle with others while still respecting the God in them, and that the God in them is the same God in us.

That does not preclude sharp disagreement, of course. She mentioned how the Ryan budget shifts money to the top in guise of job creation. This, remember, is the policy of the Bush years that drove the economy off a cliff, prompting Campbell to state the familiar definition of insanity: doing the same over and over again and expecting different results.

She also brought up the correlation between high inequality and low standard of living, and noted that right now demand is at middle and bottom, not at the top. (She then somewhat puckishly suggested that free market principles demanded supply be sent to where demand is greatest.) In short, she made the case for their position from a non-religious standpoint as well.

Making the case that way is obviously necessary if one wants to be part of a coalition that might include members ranging from atheist to deeply devout. But nuns aren’t necessarily wonks or technocrats. Their strength will more often lie in making the case from a moral perspective. Great social movements need that dimension, and the nuns are in an unusually strong position to help supply it. Considering the opposition their activism has received from the church hierarchy (while it focuses on other issues), that’s no small act of courage.

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