Nuns on the Bus – Bridging the Divides and Transforming Politics
The two-week, 2000-mile, 7-state Nuns on the Bus (NOTB) trip leading up to Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States is, in essence, a listening tour with the goal of bridging what divides us and transforming politics in the process. For those of us privileged to be on the bus it was an opportunity to listen to stories, to see the wonderful work being done in communities to address urgent needs, and to hear participants at the town halls held in every city we visited articulate both the challenges in their area and possible solutions to addressing the problems. Ultimately we will be working to bring the stories of the individuals and families we met to elected officials in order to bring about positive change through legislation. To begin, we met in local offices of U.S. Senators. Each opportunity to talk with press also included sharing stories and relating them to the messages in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si (In Your Praise).
In the encyclical Francis talks of the need to respect all people; that not enough is being done for those left out of our economic system; that human activity is destroying the environment and the poor are most impacted; and that our capitalist economy is not working for many. The tour intentionally began in St. Louis, a city whose deep divides were laid bare with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014. It was impossible to miss the stark contrast and symbolism present in the setting for the opening NOTB rally in front of the federal court building where Dred Scott lost his bid for freedom and with the Gateway Arch – symbol of westward expansion – in the background.
In St. Louis, we seven Catholic Sisters on the Bus had the privilege of spending two and one-half hours listening to five African American women from St. Louis who are part of Mothers To Mothers. They talked about the daily anxieties and fears they experience as their sons and grandsons are targets of police harassment. They decide when to first have “The Talk” with their sons about how to respond to unprovoked confrontation from the police. As young sons they are told to keep their hands out from pockets; to obey every command to lay, sit or kneel; never to turn their back or run; to speak respectfully; to humble themselves in order to remain safe. One twelve-year-old son was surrounded by several police officers while walking home unarmed and alone just five houses from his home. He later asked his mother, “Momma, how long will this last?” She responded, “For the rest of your life.” We were deeply moved by the conversation and left committed to do whatever we can do to address white racism and stand with people of color. Every city we were in – St. Louis, Kansas City, Topeka, Fayetteville, Little Rock and Memphis – racism quickly surfaced as a challenge during the town hall meetings.
Immigration was also another issue that is causing deep divides in each of the cities. In Kansas City we were welcomed to St. Anthony’s Church, a hospitable home for immigrants. Katherine’s story broke my heart. At 15 she, along with her grandmother, is now the parent to her six younger siblings because their parents were deported due to a simple traffic violation. Her 11-year-old sister attempted suicide because she felt like she was a burden to her grandmother. Juan, a Dreamer who is now 20, talked about getting a permit to start his own construction business because he was troubled seeing his father working hard in a construction job but often not getting paid.
Economic divides across racial lines were also highlighted in every city. At the heart of the divide are education systems that separate the “haves” and the “have-nots.” We heard stories from hard-working individuals who struggle to pay bills because their wages were too low. I talked with Teri and Danny and their two young children who were staying in a shelter. Teri lost her job because of the down economy and Danny can’t get a job because mistakes in his youth led to time in prison which continues to plague him every time he applies for a job.
In Arkansas and Kansas we learned that people are frustrated because large billionaire families control the politics of the state. In Kansas, for example, one result is that the state legislature and governor have refused to implement the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
According to the National Rural Health Association at least 55 rural hospitals across the nation have closed and other 283 are at risk, including as many as 15 in Kansas because politics has gotten in the way of expanding Medicaid.
During our visit to Memphis, we had the powerful experience of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. The poignant visual reminders of slavery and the sacrifices made by Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks and all of the civil rights leaders in the 60’s almost took away my breath. During the visit our thoughts and our hearts once again turned to the mothers in St. Louis whose struggles continue today. In essence they were asking the question we repeatedly heard at the town hall meetings, “What does the failure to address racism, classism, poverty, environmental devastation say about us as a people?”
I left the bus in Memphis deeply grateful for all we saw and heard and the bond we sisters and staff on the bus formed as we prayer together, shared stories, and yes, laughed. I am reminded of this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: it is only with the heart that one can see clearly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”