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Wed, July 17

Column: Non-partisan sister just wants to help

The local United Way is having a campaign kick-off event in a week, Wednesday, Sept. 12. One of the speakers will be Sister Simone Campbell.

You may have read recently about how the Catholic church hierarchy was criticizing the nation's largest organization for nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for being too progressive on some issues. That organization has in turn responded that they stand by their stands, even as they try to diffuse the tension.

At about the same time another organization of nuns, called Network, started the "Nuns on the Bus" tour.

Sister Simone is the executive director of Network, and a member of LCWR, and the two organizations have a lot of collaboration and overlap. LCWR started in 1950 and represents 80 percent of the Catholic nuns in the country. Part of its mission is "relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society" with the goal of "effecting change." Network was started 40 years ago and has about 30,000 members. It is a registered lobby organization in Washington, D.C. with a mission as a leader in the, " movement for justice and peace" and which "educates, organizes and lobbies for economic and social transformation."

Nuns on the Bus was just that, a group of nuns from Network going around the country holding rallies and meetings out of concern about the cuts, and threatened cuts, to safety-net programs. They managed to raise enough awareness that Sister Simone was interviewed by Steven Colbert, and Bill Moyers spent a full hour on this project and on interviewing her (Aug. 22, available online). She also is scheduled to speak to the Democratic national convention today. She would like to have spoken at the Republican convention as well.

I spoke with Sister Simone about her upcoming visit. Though, in addition to being a nun, she is a lawyer, and obviously deeply versed in social policy, she doesn't talk about these things like a policy wonk. She speaks about issues only partly in terms of policy, but more so from the human perspective. About the end result effects of policies on people trying to get by. She speaks from the heart. While we want our policies to be logical, that logic had better be listening to our hearts. Otherwise those policies are...what? Heartless.

She spoke of United Way as "a great example...lifting up those on the margins." "Those on the margins" seems to be one of her most common phrases. She explained this includes people who can't work, and people looking for work, but also many who work but still end up in poverty. "A lot of the people we met in the Nuns on the Bus tour...were working. Some were working and still in poverty. Some were getting education and trying to get into the workforce but having trouble finding jobs. ... People totally miss how hard people are working, and still living below the poverty line. It's shocking that people can work full time and still be in poverty. Get on the metro with me early in the morning and you meet them going to work."

She described Network as, "a Catholic Social Justice lobby." Asking her to expand on that she said that, around 40 years ago, "the Catholic bishops had a big meeting and realized that economic issues are much at the basis of injustice. ... There was a big push 40 years ago within the church to address some of the economic inequality. Ironically those issues continue."

"The fact is we come out of a faith that says we are each others keepers, as well as a constitution that says it's all about 'we the people' working together."

From reading about Network and talking to Sister Simone my impression is she is not interested in partisan issues. She just wants to go straight at ways to help people. Where various people and groups fall around that stand is no concern of hers. She finds it our spiritual duty, and our duty as members of the American community, to help those who need it. Period. If I'm overstating her position, she can correct me in her talk on the 12th.

United Way is, of course, beyond nonpartisan, it has nothing to do with partisan or political issues. They're just trying to support what the people of any given community feel works. In fact the entire morning of this event is quite an array of people. Elva Coor of the O'Connor House program for civic involvement, speakers from local and national social service programs, and a panel including several local elected officials, ending with lunch and the talk by Sister Simone.

"So much of our work is at that intersection where we all work together as a nation to face the economic challenges that our families are facing. United Way is a good way to address those."

Visit the United Way website; more information is at the link with this column online, call 778-6605 or email

Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Email him at


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