Sister Simone Campbell: What Makes This Nun on the Bus Roll?
Sister Simone Campbell is the Executive Director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. In 2010 she wrote a letter in support of President Obama’s health care reform bill that was credited with helping the bill to pass. She and other members of NETWORK also initiated the famed Nuns on the Bus in the summer of 2012, which toured nine states bringing awareness of the effects of budget cuts to on the most vulnerable of society.
Sister Simone Campbell was recently honored by Auburn Seminary in their Lives of Commitment ceremony. I spoke with her last month about the latest on the Vatican censure of the nuns, her spiritual practices, plans for the Nuns on the Bus to ride again, and her favorite poem.
PBR: How was your Easter last month?
SSC: It was glorious, just glorious. It was a wonderful opportunity for some space and reflection. I had to acknowledge that I had hope for change within our beloved church, and then I had to deal with my fear of that hope being betrayed. So, it was a very good Holy Week meditation because that is exactly what Jesus did. It was challenging but good.
Speaking of hope and betrayal, what do you think of the news from the Vatican about Pope Francis re-affirming the censure of the American Nuns?
I must say that I had hoped that nobody would ever talk about the censure again and that was really unrealistic on my part. I can certainly see that in the context of the big story, we are a really small story that I doubt that he followed in Argentina. So, I have a hunch that there are a variety of movements at work here.
What is the affect of the big goings on at the Vatican on the things that you believe in and what you are working for?
(Laughs ) None. The fact is that we are being faithful to our mission and we are going to continue to be faithful to our mission; which is to respond to the needs of those on the economic margin of our society. And I am sure that Pope Francis understands that mission — or it appears. And so, eventually by the time our small little group percolates up to the top, he will understand what we are doing, I’m sure.
So you have confidence things will work out?
Yes, but I also understand that we are really small in very big macro politics. And we are not at the table of power. One of their criticisms was that we thought we were the teachers of the church. We are not. We are the doers of the church. It’s all politics, but it is politics way above my head.
Speaking of politics, what are the issues you continue to be passionate about here at home?
The pressing issues are gun violence, because it is about peace building in our country. The second is Medicaid expansion. Every state needs to expand Medicaid. Many of the governors that are turning down Medicaid claim that they are pro-life and what I say is that they are only pro-birth. If you are pro-life in the richest nation on earth then folks who don’t have access to health care — should. It’s a pro-life stance in my view.
What do you think of the efforts to roll back abortion in many of the states around the country? Is that something you support as well?
Nah, we are not in on that. Those are specific state efforts and we are a federal lobby. And we don’t lobby on the abortion issue one way or the other because we are about the broader perspective of life so we are trying to get people health care.
Will the Nuns ride again?
We are going to be on the bus for three weeks riding around the country for immigration reform. That starts will start on May 28th at Liberty Park (New Jersey) looking out on Ellis Island.
Can you tell me a little about the role of prayer and how the traditional disciplines of faith give courage to the work that you and the other sisters are doing?
What a lovely question — not many people ask me that question. It is at the heart of what we do. I know that for me, I do an hour of meditation every morning and that is the source of being able to keep doing this. Meditation is about listening. Not telling God what to do, but listening to where we are being led and it is the nudges that come from listening that are the source of our action.
I know that you are a lawyer, a poet, as well as a Nun — it seems like you are bringing all these disciplines to this essential effort of the betterment of life for all. Who are the mentors who allowed you to not compartmentalize these disparate interests but view them as part of a whole?
Well it would have to be my family. My sister and I became interested in civil rights in grammar school but it was always connected to faith for us. I think it must have been Martin Luther King’s amazing speeches. And as kids we would listen to his speeches and they touched me. So, I always knew that it was about the Gospel.
And my teachers in school were the Immaculate Heart sisters in California who ended up getting thrown out of the church by Cardinal Macintyre; but they gave me a grounding by emphasized that faith was not separate — faith was integrated in life.
And how did you become a lawyer?
I was community organizing up in Oregon and we organized some tenants to testify at the state legislature for the need for tenants rights. A curmudgeon of a legislator asked me about the ‘covenant of something or other’ and I didn’t know what he was talking about and it made me mad — I hate power imbalance.
So, I decided that if I was going to keep doing this work — and I did like doing that work — then I had to go to law school. So, after I took final vows, my community allowed me to go to UC Davis for law school. And then I found that I liked practicing law so I did that for 18 years — all high conflict, low income cases in Alameda County in Oakland.
You are also a poet. As you are a nun, I know you are devoid of any feeling we might call pride. That said, what is the poem that you wrote that you would like people to most identify you with?
Oooooh, that’s tough — there’s two. One’s called “Compassion’s Path,” and the other is called “Incarnation.” “Incarnation” might be the stronger one. The last stanza is:
And let us recall on drear distant days, we are promised Christmas joy. We live as one, this fragile gifted life, for we are the body of God.