Turning Trouble into Miracles

In what can only be described as a modern-day miracle, the Nuns on the Bus managed to transform a Vatican sanction into prophetic witness.

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Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, waves as she steps off the bus during a stop on the first day of a nine-state Nuns on the Bus tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, waves as she steps off the bus during a stop on the first day of a nine-state Nuns on the Bus tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

For those people—and there are many of us, including the religious—who are skeptical that miracles can happen in the 21st century, I have four words for you: Nuns on the Bus.

How else can we explain and understand the transformation of a relatively unknown Catholic nun who runs a small social justice group into a nationally known prophetic leader whose bus tour attracted thousands as it called attention to the economic suffering of American families?

The miracle started with trouble. In the spring of 2012, the Vatican reprimanded the largest overseeing of Catholic nuns in the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, and investigated several other organizations associated with the LCWR. One of these was NETWORK—headed by its executive director, Sister Simone Campbell. According to the Vatican, the nuns were paying more attention to issues such as poverty than they were to abortion, an issue that many conservatives claim is of crucial importance to the church and society. The censure concluded a Vatican-led investigation into the groups and their leaders.

Also that spring, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed a federal budget that slashed safety net programs such as Medicare and nutrition assistance while offering tax cuts for the wealthy. Rep. Ryan, a Catholic, made the astonishing claim that his budget reflected Catholic principles, despite its draconian cuts to programs crucial to help the poor.

In her new book, A Nun on the Bus, Sister Simone says that the Vatican censure, which came just four days after NETWORK celebrated its 40th anniversary, spurred her to find a way to share the mission of social justice that animates the lives of Catholic nuns. She also wanted to speak out against the Ryan budget cuts that targeted the least and most vulnerable among us.

“That’s the reality we wanted to communicate,” Sister Simone writes, “and in the process we wanted to remind our people about the American story of community and solidarity that once defined our society’s ideals.”

But how could she do that?

During a meeting with supporters to figure out how to respond to the Vatican, the idea of hitting the road in a bus was born. As Sister Simone details the process of prayer, meditation, and discernment that led her to embrace what she was being called to do, it becomes clear that miracles cannot happen without human participation. Indeed, miracles require an active partnership between us and the divine.

One piece of the miracle was how the Nuns on the Bus tour, with a tiny budget and no marketing plan, was able to accomplish what expensive ad campaigns rarely can—grab our attention to such an extent that they become not only part of our vernacular but also a brand. At a time when so many people are skeptical, jaded, and suspicious that things seemingly real are actually fake, Nuns on the Bus managed to break through and touch people’s hearts in a deep and meaningful way.

Since the initial Nuns on the Bus tour in 2012, nuns have gone on a ferry to decry economic inequality and have created a number of state-based bus campaigns to support Medicaid expansion, environmental responsibility, and more. Last summer, Sister Simone led a Nuns on the Border bus tour that gave visibility to the plight of undocumented immigrants and called for comprehensive immigration reform. She hopes to be riding buses again this fall to continue to bring visibility to people on the margins, all of whom are part of God’s beloved community.

In her book, Sister Simone emphasizes how important it is to be attentive in the moment, as well as to be open to ways that we can create love, justice, and healing in our world, no matter the risks. Our hearts need to be broken by the suffering of our brothers and sisters, she says; that is how they become open.

In addition to being a nun, Sister Simone is a lawyer and a poet, so she has the ability to make her case with convincing facts and fervent words. And her admonitions are always accompanied by encouragement, by the belief that we as a society and as a nation can do better. As individuals, communities, and the 100 percent that we collectively are, we can try harder and do more for those who most need assistance. We can help create miracles.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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