by Sue Ann Rybak
The “Nuns on the Bus” message was simple: “Reasonable Revenue for Responsible Programs.” It is a response to a proposed federal budget drawn up by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and it seemed to resonate with the approximately 300 people who showed up to greet them at a fundraiser held in Martino Hall at Chestnut Hill College.
The Catholic nuns, who represented a variety of religious orders, began their nine-state, 2,700-mile bus tour on June 18 to protest the Ryan budget, which gives tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting funds to social programs that benefit the poor. Sponsored by Network, a national Catholic social justice organization, the tour traveled through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, ending Monday in Washington, D.C.
While in Chestnut Hill, the nuns discussed the need for solidarity and urged Pennsylvanians to oppose what they described as immoral and drastic budget cuts that would decimate programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps.
“The Ryan Budget would raise taxes on 18 million hard-working, low-income families while cutting taxes for the millionaires and corporations,” said Sr. Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director. “It would push the families of two million children into poverty – kick eight million people off food stamps and 30 million off health care.
Noting that trying to create jobs by giving tax cuts to the wealthy has not worked, Campbell added, “You know what the definition of insanity is – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
She said the Nuns on the Bus tour focused on the needs of the poor in the United States.
“The Ryan Budget fails the basic moral test, according to U.S. Catholic Bishops, so we are standing with our bishops,” Campbell said.
The Vatican recently criticized American nuns for focusing on social justice issues instead of speaking out against gay marriage and abortion,
Campbell talked about the idea of “radical acceptance” – that even those who are opposed to the nuns’ call for social justice are still “God’s children.”
“We are one body,” she said. “We are called to be the burning bush.”
Campbell said Americans “must use the breath of the spirit to engage in a dialogue” to address the nation’s economic crisis.
“We can’t ignore it,” she said. “It has to be addressed, but let’s be analytical about it. What caused the debt? What caused the debt was putting two wars on a credit card.”
Network and members of Nuns on the Bus have come up with an alternative to Ryan’s Budget. It’s a 55-page document called the Faithful Budget.
Campbell said Rep. Ryan expects that the churches, synagogues and mosques will supplement the cuts to much needed health and food programs.
She said if this happens “every house of worship in the United State will each have to raise $50,000 every year for ten years to make up the difference – that’s impossible.”
“That’s not just shredding the safety net – that’s tossing the safety net away,” she added. “The working poor will be the ones who suffer. Many of these people are working who receive food stamps. Well, if you’re working and making a salary that isn’t enough, doesn’t this make it not charity but actually a business subsidy, where we are subsidizing low-wage workers so that employers can pay low wages.”
Sr. Diane Guerin, one of the Nuns on the Bus, said the sisters understood the suffering of the poor because they saw it daily in their everyday lives.
“As a Sister of Mercy, I take a fourth vow of service to the poor, the sick and the uneducated, and for me this is a call to really be out there and help people and bear witness to what we see and do,” Guerin said. “We are touched by people’s pain and we’re hoping that we can take that back to the people in Congress and have them experience it. We need to break open their hearts.”
Sr. Mary Ellen Lacey, another bus rider, said Network, with the help of fellow citizens, “has developed a platform for every state” and said legislators need to hear the “cry of the poor.” But for this to happen, she said, Americans needed to “sign on board” by going to nunsonthebus.org.
Sr. Judy Oliver, a guest speaker, said the shutting down of needed social programs challenges “the very identity of who we are as a nation.”
“The American people are good people,” she said. “We are not perfect, but it has always been characteristic of us to exhibit a basic goodness and show sensitivity and compassion to those in need during national and international crises. Helping those in need has always been the American way.”
Oliver said if Americans continue supporting representatives who draft and pass legislation that inflicts greater hardship on citizens in need, “the very identity of the American people will drastically change.”
Adding that Americans were at a crossroads, she said Americans “must decide who we are called to be as citizens and as human beings.”
“I doubt that anyone of any economic status when they or their loved one is ill and needs care doesn’t want to get what they need,” Oliver said. “And yet this most fundamental need and this most basic of rights is targeted to be depleted by the Ryan budget.”
Sr. Richelle Friedman, another member of Nuns on the Bus, encouraged people to reach out to their representatives and “tell them your stories that are so critical and important,” noting that it was important “to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
“We are the voice of the people who are affected by these policies,” Friedman said.
Colleen Gibson, a candidate for the Sisters of St. Joseph, works at a community center providing meals to people in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. She said that by eliminating key services society doesn’t give the most vulnerable any chance of survival.
Gibson said that, under the Ryan budget, 159,000,000 million meals to “the most vulnerable of our society” would be eliminated, adding that “behind each one of those meals is a person who is going to go hungry one night.” In addition, she said, “Over 1.6 million seniors and children in Pennsylvania are going to lose medical coverage.”
“We can’t balance our budget on the backs of the poor,” Gibson said. “We need to stand up for change.”
Sr. Kathy McGonigle, of New Jersey, who came out to support Nuns on the Bus, works as a mental health clinician at a women’s prison in New Jersey. She said the cuts “would be devastating to the most vulnerable in our society.”
Alice O’Neill, who attends St. Vincent De Paul Church in Germantown, said this was her first exposure to the Network people.”
“Needless to say, how can anybody be anything but impressed,” O’Neill said. “It’s amazing.”
Lou Monticchio, of Hamilton, N.J., said he had been following the Vatican’s pronouncement against the nuns.
“When I realized they were going to be in the Philadelphia area, I wanted to be here,” Monticchio said.
“It makes people hopeful because of what they do and what their lives are about. They have a certain level of authenticity about themselves. People trust them.”
He added that if the country was going to find a solution to the economic crisis, people needed “to cross the aisle and find a way of regaining some dialogue. It’s tough but it’s a central ingredient,”
Joyce Miller, of Philadelphia, said she came out because she admired “what [the nuns] are doing and their outreach.” Although Miller is not a Catholic, she said she wanted to show her support.
She said to accomplish something like this you need to have a lot of grass-root support.
“They are the ones who are out in the community working hard, and I admire that,” she added.
John Day, a Chestnut Hill resident, said he came “to hear the challenges to the Ryan Budget and the impact it has on the poor.”
Nancy Kelley, of Haverford, said she heard Campbell interviewed on NPR and was “impressed with how rational, thoughtful and insightful she was.”
Kelley, who is also an alumnus of Chestnut Hill College, said, referring to the NPR program, that “as hard as people tried to engage her in polarized comments, she skillfully and in a truly Christian manner avoided that.”
“Every time they tried to put her in a corner, she found away out of it,” Kelley said. “I came to see her as well as to hear the testimony to social justice.”
She said she was impressed that they had developed an alternative plan, the Faithful Budget, and wanted to learn more about it.
Roger Van Allen, a faculty member at Villanova University who came with his wife, Judy, said the nuns delivered “a message of caring and hope.”
“We can make a difference by being in touch with people and being determined to help create systems that will be just and fair,” Van Allen said,
Judy Van Allen said it was important for people “to engage in dialogue and get past the headline syndrome.”
“Everyone wants to grab a headline and make it their life’s mantra, and they don’t want to know the complications of the issues,” she said. “The issues are very complicated.”