Friday, July 15, 2016

Riding for Justice, Propelled by the Holy Spirit

By Sr. Mary Ellen Lacy

In 2012, I was working as the healthcare and immigration lobbyist for Network, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby in Washington, D.C.   In Spring of that year, Paul Ryan released his budget.   It was readily apparent that he planned to balance the budget on the backs of the Poor.  His budget block granted Medicaid, stripped Pell grants and decimated other human dignity programs.  It was simply horrible.  To make matter worse, he said it was consistent with the Catholic faith.  It was just too much to take sitting down.  We in D.C.  knew a moral budget was possible because many social justice organizations in D.C. had already come together to write a Faithful Budget.  We were planning for its release around this time in order to counter his approach; namely, that more should be taken from impoverished folks.

Within days of this budget “crisis”, Network celebrated our 40th anniversary.  Imagine! It had been 40 years since 47 sisters went to our nation’s capital to address the needs of the Poor with their Congressmen. As I have been told, the plan was to stay and lobby for one or two weeks.  At the end of the planned time period, it was apparent to all that some should stay back and continue the political fight for justice for those who live in poverty.  They recognized that our Poor needed a constant amplification of Their voice.  So, two sisters, funded with $87.00, remained in D.C. to speak up for the disenfranchised, the discounted and the dispirited in the United States.  That was the seedling company that became Network.

Oh, our anniversary party was grand.  We had activists and EJ Dionne speak.  Sisters and activists from all over came to celebrate the work we had, were and would continue to do.  We strategized how we could make ourselves better known and create a greater circle of interest in our work.  We worked in small groups and we prayed for the answer.

BAM! Within 10 days the answer arose like a puff of smoke.  The Vatican published the results of an assessment they had started 3-4 years earlier.  It was a simple 7 page assessment that cited the USA sisters for spending too much time in service to the Poor and not enough time speaking out about church dogma.

I remember how I found out about the assessment results.  Casey, from Faith in Public Life and our future bus director, emailed the USCCB press release to Shannon at Network. Shannon sent it around. I read this somewhat disappointing assessment of the USA nuns and noted that Network was pointed out as an agency that garnered Vatican suspicion. Huh.   I was 4 years vocation and I was working at a place that the Vatican was questioning.  I briefly wondered if my council knew.  My next reaction was to think that it was an old assessment from 3-4 years ago and to dismiss it.  Within an hour, the truth began to sink in.  Our organization, comprised of 8 people, had, indeed, captured the attention of the Vatican.  Whoa.  That cannot be good.  Or can it?

Activists from all over DC were concerned and deeply disappointed.  They loved Catholic sisters and spontaneously called and came to our offices to offer support.  A general meeting was scheduled to explore how we might best respond. What followed next was nothing shy of genius.

About 35 of us gathered in the Network lunch/meeting room.  The bigwigs of D.C. activism sat at the table seats and we lesser known folks were seated behind these experienced players.  At first, Catholics and non Catholics wanted to strike back at the church, citing its infractions vs. the sisters’ clean reputation.  We dismissed that idea rather quickly because tearing our church apart was not an option.  People bantered about various ideas.  Someone said that we should use our heightened publicity to serve the Poor and hold up the work sisters actually do.  Insodoing, we would be spotlighting the kinds of programs that Paul Ryan wanted to kill.  We could then introduce our faithful budget that protected the good works that sisters and other faith leaders perform.  This idea had a smooth political flow and it sparked interest.  It was then suggested that we should do a whistle stop train campaign that was done in early politics.  Then someone else said, “No, nuns drive school buses, it should be a bus”.  Everyone laughed but soon, the bus idea picked up speed.  Those of us in the back row looked askance at each other as if to say, these guys are nuts.  Then I said a silent prayer that my council would let me go.

By the end of this one meeting, it was decided that someone would get ahold of a known agency that did these kinds of campaigns.  We would also need more nuns to ride.  We noted that we could stay at sisters’ motherhouses along the way to save money on housing during the trip.  But we would have to strike fast to make the most of the publicity to save impoverished people from the Ryan budget. We would meet later to explore a name for our new endeavor.

Within 5-6 weeks the first Nuns on the Bus hit the road.   We had no idea what to expect and we did not have near the money we needed to set off on this trip.  But we believed we were following the call of the Holy Spirit to save the programs that help our brothers and sisters on the margins. So we took the risk.  And that was Catholic, Mr. Ryan.   We travelled the 8 swing states holding up the works that sisters performed with federal funding.  We took in stories of those who would be impacted by the deep cuts envisioned by Paul Ryan so we could take them back to D.C.   Thousands of people came out to stand with us and our impoverished sisters and brothers to say no more cuts to their programs.  We used all the stories to lobby Congress and cradled the resulting sentiments to propel our passion for justice.  That was an election year and all 8 states went blue.

That was 4 tours ago.  NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus are hitting the road again – daring to call on elected officials and candidates to Mend the Gaps in income and wealth inequality in our nation. We will bring the bus to both the Republican and Democratic Conventions where we will educate people on the gaps that we are experiencing in our society and NETWORK’s proactive policy strategy that can bridge those divides. Our goal is to bring a politics of inclusion to divided places, change the conversation to mending the vast economic and social divides in our country, and counter political incivility with our message of inclusion. (see Network website)

I will be joining the bus in Toledo on Saturday, July 16, 2016, and I will ride through to the end.  I will ride again because I believe in a nation where all men can be given a chance to provide for their family in the manner and dignity in which God intended.  We can make that happen if we get people talking to each other and owning their responsibility to one another.   Congress is gridlocked.  Change, if it is to be had, will bubble up from hopeful springs of good neighbors at the ground level.  I hope to see you at one of our events.  Please pray for us.  We will be blogging from the bus to keep all “menders” up to date.  

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