By Linda Stamato
Christian advocates for social equality must embrace everyone– even “mistakes that God made on an off day,” like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The line drew big laughs Monday at Drew University, but it underscored Sister Simone Campbell’s strategy of “radical inclusion.”
Campbell, the Roman Catholic nun whose 2012 “Nuns on a Bus” tour made her a global rock star for progressive change, tolerance, and equality, and who lobbied hard for the passage of Obamacare, delivered the closing talk at the 2017 Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures.
This year’s theme, Theology in the Streets, celebrated the 150th anniversary of Drew University’s Theological Seminary with two days of concerts, lectures and service awards.
Campbell is the leader of Network, where she works alongside her sisters to advance justice and peace in keeping with the precepts and promises of Vatican II—on the street, from the platform of a traveling bus, and in the halls of Congress.
She took her final vows in 1973, earned her law degree in 1977 from the University of California at Davis, and has received countless awards and tributes for her work preaching and advocating a “gospel of justice,” working on behalf of those injured by economic inequality, poverty, and lack of healthcare.
She advocates, she said, for the marginalized, the unseen, for the 100 percent. Her Twitter following is catching up to the Pope’s.
For just under an hour, a diverse and enthusiastic audience accompanied Campbell on her journey from the passage of the Affordable Care Act—she claims responsibility for at least 29 votes in favor—to a kiss from President Obama at the bill’s signing.
“The Nuns Letter,” which she wrote and circulated in support of the Affordable Care Act, was timed for the days immediately preceding the vote by Congress. The letter attracted 60 signatories—heads of various religious orders—and was sent to all members of Congress. The nuns, in short, “showed up.”
SHOWING UP HAS CONSEQUENCES
Active opposition to the ACA by the U.S. Conference of Bishops, however, made Campbell’s support letter stand in stark relief.
As she pointed out, “showing up” to make a difference has consequences. She and the others who stood with her were denied access to Catholic spaces to assemble and speak, ordered not to attend conferences, and, in a major action by the Vatican, prompted by their “disobedience,” they were censured and investigated by a Vatican-appointed commission.
Campbell and her colleagues were accused of “radical feminist themes that were incompatible with the gospels.”
“Really?” she said. “I thought they were just right!”
But the consequences had some unintended positive consequences, too.
As Network sought ways to fund a 40th anniversary celebration, the Vatican shone a spotlight on its efforts. Global press coverage was substantial. That did it for the organization.
As one of Campbell’s colleagues observed: “The girls won, but the boys were still upset.”
And so, indeed, they were. The inquisition—there actually were three—didn’t end until Pope Francis arrived in Rome several years later.
Campbell used several stories to illustrate her approach to advocacy. She resists the temptation to “push back” because, she said, that only reinforces.
We need, she said, to fight FOR a vision, to stay faithful to it, despite provocation, to show up and press forward, to demonstrate a hunger to heal people and to care for our beloved earth.
‘RADICAL ACCEPTANCE’–EVEN OF MITCH
She preaches the “radical acceptance” of people who, she says, “are mistakes that God made on an off day,” like Mitch McConnell, the Senator from Kentucky who has pushed–so far unsuccessfully–to repeal Obamacare.
To much laughter, she went on to say that much as she dislikes him, McConnell is loved by God and if she voted to put him “off the island,” as she often wants to do, she would only succeed in putting herself off the island too.
Why? Because “radical inclusion” requires that “we fight for a mission that will not be destroyed.” If we’re going to show up, to speak up, our words “have to be grounded in the gospel of love….that says ‘you will not destroy vulnerable people.’”
And McConnell, apparently, is vulnerable in her eyes.
Further, she said, people of faith “need to be the voices of the constituents when senators and representatives are only listening to their donors.”
We are called, Campbell said, to do this work, not as individuals, but as members of a community. How, she asked, could the “Nuns on the Bus” have been successful without community?
We “provided a path, an avenue, for people in the places we visited, to ‘show up,’ to “follow the path of Jesus, the organizer,” she said.
Storytelling is how she generates community engagement and systemic policy response. But too much of the latter, she admits, can make eyes glaze over.
While her data analysis reveals that the nations with the highest income disparity—that’s us—have the lowest quality of life, she said it’s essential to make the point personal, with a story, not “disembodied economics.”
“No one will change as a result of a theory, but he or she may well change with the telling of a story.” Stories, after all, deal with reality, Campbell said.
“Blessed and broken,” we can make a difference, Campbell said. She recounted the story of Margaret, whose photograph she carries with her. She lost her job in 2008, and with it, her healthcare coverage. Margaret died in 2011 at age 56 from colon cancer. That she had no access to health coverage and medical treatment broke Campbell’s heart.
We need to be part of a community that heals, “to touch the pain of the world as real, and to let our hearts be broken open by the reality around us,” Campbell said. Then, we can step up, show up, and be prepared to enter less comfortable spaces and act.
“Remember,” she said, “that we are people of faith who are responding to where we are led.”
To many, Campbell offers a fresh vision for a lived spirituality. Some might call her saintly. But she would be the last to accept that designation; she would offer up “her community,” all of the activist faithful, for that honor.
Linda Stamato lives in Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood, and is a faculty member at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.