Speaking out

Leader of "Nuns on the Bus" shares message of social justice at CSB

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March 13, 2013

By Mike Killeen

Koch Chair Jennifer Beste (left) and S. Simone Campbell speak with a CSB student following S. Simone's visit to a CSB/SJU classroom.

She's swapped quips with Stephen Colbert, traded jabs with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and spoke before a hushed 2012 Democratic National Convention - all in a span of a year.

It has been, S. Simone Campbell said, an unbelievable year.

But she would gladly trade all of that for a federal budget that would not harm people with cuts to social programs.

Campbell, who spoke to a crowd of more than 400 people at the College of Saint Benedict March 6, is the executive director of NETWORK. The organization sponsored the nine-state "Nuns on the Bus" tour during June 2012 to educate people about the economic injustices that would be caused by these cuts.

"I have a hunch that people want to know that we're in this together," Campbell said. "I think that's why community becomes so important. If I know somebody has my back, I feel really different.

"I was in a class and I asked students if that was their experience. This one guy said, no, he thought he was on his own. It didn't matter to him. That made me really sad for him. How do you survive, if you think you're on your own?

"I believe we're in this together. It's 100 percent," she added.

Campbell's appearance at CSB, which was sponsored by the College of Saint Benedict Koch Chair in Catholic Thought and Culture and in collaboration with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John's University, seemed to resonate with students.

"At CSB and SJU, we have many students who are passionate and informed about social justice issues," said John Merkle, professor of theology at CSB and SJU and director of the Jay Phillips Center. "Sister Simone's message about the need for a federal budget that responds to systematic economic injustices in our society resonates with these students' concerns and inspires them to advocate for a budget that would help repair the fabric of our society."

"Many students said they wanted to meet her because they so deeply identify with her passion for justice within their Catholic faith and struggle with other aspects of Catholicism," added Jennifer Beste, associate professor of theology at CSB and SJU and the newly appointed Koch Chair. "I was so impressed with many students' desires to integrate their faith with their desires to enter politics to make our nation and world a more just and peaceful place."

Politics has been anything but peaceful in the last year. Campbell partially believes that "hunger" for spiritual leadership coincides with the divide between the left and the right.

"Fear is so rampart in our society - fear of the other," Campbell said. "The reason people don't talk to each other is that they're afraid. They're afraid they're not going to survive economically. Politicians are afraid they won't get re-elected. People are afraid that somebody else will take advantage of them. People are afraid."

Campbell hasn't been afraid to take on the big boys.

On her DNC speech: "I said I would (speak), if I could lift up at the margins of our society and say I was pro-life, and that we have a big tent that everyone's welcome in," Campbell said. However, her initial draft of her speech was edited and changed into a political speech. "I said, 'I'm not giving a political speech. My value to you is that of a faith person, who'll give a faith speech. If you want a political speech, get a politician.' " Officials allowed her to give her initial speech.

On twice going head-to-head with Colbert on "The Colbert Report": "The only instruction you get is that his character is conservative, a curmudgeon, ignorant and doesn't want to learn anything, so just push back. It's fun. I enjoyed it. I discovered I have a mind that sort of goes like his does, which is pretty scary," Campbell said, laughing.

On meeting with Ryan: "Before he was nominated (for vice president), we had asked for a meeting. They said he would give me a meeting if I came alone without staff and didn't bring the press. He was polite. He didn't want to hear any about what the impact of his budget would do," Campbell said.

Campbell said she is hopeful of meeting Ryan again down the road. If Ryan agrees, he could heed the words of Merkle.

"From my conversations with students, I know many of them are fed up with politicians who put their political ideologies above critical human needs and the social services that address those needs," Merkle said. "Sister Simone presented these students and others in the audience with a compelling case for advocating for a federal budget that would help to reduce inequality and provide greater economic opportunity for all citizens."

Watch S. Simone's talk at CSB.