What I Learned From Working With Nuns on the Bus
The overlooked progressive activism of religious women
My social and political activism began in the ’90s as an undergrad at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic women’s college (now co-ed) in Philadelphia founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph (SSJ) in 1924. Friends at other schools were often incredulous to learn that many of my professors were nuns, and that in addition to teaching us, some of them lived among students in the dorms. I was a bit on edge myself the first time one of the Sisters got wind of my organizing work and called me into her office. I was raised Catholic and had a firmly set idea of the political lecture I thought I was about to be reprimanded for.
I was wrong.
Rather than being chastised, I was offered support and assistance with logistics and transportation to rallies. Members of the SSJ stood with student activists protesting the Iraq sanctions, the death penalty, other progressive movements and Aught causes. Women I graduated with later took orders to become Sisters of St. Joseph themselves.
But given what I’d seen of the SSJ’s intertwined sense of societal and spiritual purpose, it didn’t strike me as a shocking decision. It doesn’t seem like such a radically different path than my own, which includes marriage and children, but also a commitment to ethically informed community organizing, most often with other women in female-led organizations.
That narrative too often focuses on the misdeeds of men and ignores the achievements of women.
Through these Catholic sisters’ stories of activism at the border or inner cities, I’ve gained a clear view of the social justice work nuns in the United States are doing. These stories of progressive action seem to gets lost in the larger pop culture narrative on the Catholic Church.
That narrative too often focuses on the misdeeds of men and ignores the achievements of women.
That narrative needs revision.
Road Tripping for Political Change
In their big, brightly colored vehicle painted with declarations about their cause and announcement of their destination, the Nuns on the Bus hit the road for rallies, voter registration drives, and listening sessions.
Since 2012, these road-tripping nuns have been setting out across the country with a different theme each year. They have looped along the nation’s southern border to advocate for immigration reform. They have ventured down south to register voters, especially in low-income communities, with particular outreach to non-native speakers and people of color.
In 2018, the Nuns on the Bus set out from Washington D.C. on a cross country “Tax Ju$tice Truth Tour” with an end destination of none other than Mar-a-Lago, Florida, President Donald’s Trump’s. The goal of the tour, according to their social media campaign, was “ to hold elected officials accountable for their votes on the 2017 tax law and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act”—with particular attention to the way it threatens Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare for the working class.
But it’s not just about their activism. The Nuns on the Bus also encourage others to join them on their road trip to Trump’s place. They invited others to grab a “car, bike, van, bus, unicycle — so you can follow the Nuns to Mar-a-Lago.” They’ve also created the #nuntrouble hashtag to drum up a social media following. To further stoke excitement, the group produced their own catchy Meghan Trainor music video spoof, “All About That Bus.” Nothing suggests that the Nuns on the Bus have attained rockstar status like a write-up in Rolling Stone.
In addition to their outreach, the Nuns on the Bus keep a travel blog where they report and reflect on their faith-based experiences of advocacy. Through photos, they document the lives of underserved individuals they meet along the way. While on the road in 2015, the nuns collected video clips of the diverse cross-section of Americans that they met. They then delivered an iPad loaded with those stories to Pope Francis during his visit to the United States.
The nuns reported being overjoyed that these stories, captured via popular technology, were delivered to the pontiff. “We were trusted by them to bring their stories,” they reflected to Rolling Stone. “I rejoice that their trust was fulfilled in its delivery.”
When Faith and Politics Merge
These progressive religious women (the often self-identifier of today’s nuns) are plugged into a larger organization called Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying group with a strong decades-long presence in Washington, D.C. The organization was formed in 1971, a time of high energy following Vatican II. A group of 47 Catholic sisters from across the country joined to train activists and lobby Capitol Hill. Faith and politics merged in this space. According to its history, “staff members initially lived and worked in the same house in Washington, which also served as a place where local activists gathered for Saturday-night liturgies and other events.” The group, still headquartered in DC, is led by a 17-member board with representation throughout the county.
Anyone who still thinks of nuns as reclusive anchorites needs to update their thinking.
In 2001, one of the founders of the group, Sister Carol Coston, was awarded the Presidential Citizen Award. As President Bill Clinton noted in presenting the honor, “she helped to create Network, a national Catholic lobby that has mobilized thousands of nuns and lay people to fight for social progress in South Africa, for women’s rights, and for economic justice. Coston helped to win passage of the Community Reinvestment Act [enacted in 1977], which has led to billions of dollars in investment in our inner cities.”
A member of the Adrian Dominician order, Sister Coston’s current project is advocacy for permaculture. Her religious community includes “Permaculture Gardens, which were once seven acres of mowed turf grass but now feature a food forest; four different types of composting; a community garden; a garden in raised beds on permeable asphalt so it is accessible to those using wheelchairs, walkers or scooters; a vegetable cooperative; rainwater-harvesting structures to irrigate the gardens; and earthworks and swales to slow, spread and filter rainwater runoff.” Sister Carol uses YouTube to teach others about the topic, proving that anyone who still thinks of nuns as reclusive anchorites needs to update their thinking.
Sister Simone Campbell, who now heads Network, does not mince words about the group’s purpose. As she told NPR in 2012 segment, “We’re a political organization. We apply our faith to politics.”
Within the larger Catholic Church, however, this vocal and visible living of their faith through politics hasn’t always been appreciated or supported. In 2009, the Vatican ordered two separate, comprehensive investigations into the activities of American Catholic sisters. Cardinal Franc Rode ordered investigations of the over 300 congregations of nuns. He offered barbed criticism of Catholic nuns, accusing them of going off message from church doctrine in their social justice advocacy and community engagement.
She called for spiritual leadership to get more in-tune with true spiritual life, rooted in people’s stories, rather than about male power.
In 2012, following these investigations, Catholic nuns were reprimanded for what the Vatican, headed by then-Pope Benedict XVI, termed “serious doctrinal problems” and “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The investigations were dropped in 2015 by Pope Francis, who was elected to the papacy two years prior. But Sister Campbell still had analysis to offer in 2017, when she was invited to a Vatican conference on women’s contributions to peace. Addressing current problems in the Church, she called for spiritual leadership to get more in-tune with true spiritual life, rooted in people’s stories, rather than about male power.
Lessons from the SSJ, in and Beyond the Classroom
My access point to the activism of American nuns has been the Sisters of St. Joseph who served as my college professors, whose members participate as Nuns on the Bus, who help to lead the Leadership Conference for Women Religious and have numerous other order-specific projects of their own. In my experiences working with and learning from women of that order, social justice is not an abstract concept but a rallying point. Social issues are filtered not through the lens of partisan politics but via moral imperative.
One of those projects is the St. Joseph Worker Program, designed as a yearlong service opportunity for women ages 21 to 30. Social justice work figures among this commitment. A year of service via the program is now available on both coasts. In Sister Simone’s vision for Network’s future, spiritual life and civic engagement will continue to bring about change.
“Our vision is that we as a nation will ‘mend the gaps’ in income and wealth disparity,” she says. “This does not mean that everyone will have the same income and wealth, but rather that everyone will have what they need to live in dignity.”
Social justice is not an abstract concept but a rallying point. Social issues are filtered not through the lens of partisan politics but via moral imperative.
Coalition-building across various issues and directed at different levels of government will be needed, Sister Simone notes, as well as diversity in participation.
“The racial wealth gap that has been generated by our national original sin of racism will be mended,” she says. “This vision is rooted in our faith, but is also rooted in our Constitution.”