|Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, left, talks with Sister Mary Acerbi, SSSF, during the Nuns on the Bus town hall meeting at Vanderbilt Divinity School Sept. 16. Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, center, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, led the meeting and encouraged dialogue among audience members. Photo by Theresa Laurence
The Nuns on the Bus pulled into Nashville Sept. 16-17 “to listen to the stories of real people,” according to Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.
Sister Simone was leading the fourth national Nuns on the Bus tour, which traveled more than 2,000 miles and included town hall meetings, visits to shelters, transitional housing facilities, schools, food pantries, parishes, and social justice ministries in Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. “Our strategy is to work in a variety of settings, not just Catholic ones, because it’s bigger than that,” Sister Simone said.
The tour was launched on Sept. 10 in response to Pope Francis’ historic U.S. visit, and the call in his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” to build an economy of inclusion.
In Nashville, the Nuns on the Bus held a town hall meeting at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Sept. 16, and on Sept. 17 visited with the women of Thistle Farms, survivors of abuse, prostitution and addiction, who are rebuilding their lives through the Nashville-based social enterprise.
“By listening to people, especially to those on the margins, and responding by eliminating factors that perpetuate poverty and injustice, we will create change,” said Sister Simone.
During the town hall meeting at Vanderbilt, Sister Simone and her fellow sisters asked questions and listened as people discussed challenges and opportunities facing Nashville. The theme of this year’s bus tour was “Bridge the Divides: Transform Politics,” so the focus was on dialogue and consensus building.
Several similar themes emerged in nearly every city the nuns visited, including “the eroding of public education,” hunger, poverty and low wages, and “the divisions around race,” according to Sister Simone.
The conversation in Nashville addressed these issues with a uniquely local spin. Many participants noted the dichotomy between “It City” Nashville, catering to the affluent and well-educated, and the city where immigrants, the working poor, and minority students are being left behind.
“This is extremely important and it’s not being adequately addressed by anyone,” Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, said of the students who are falling through the cracks of an inadequate public education system. Sister Sandra, who co-founded Smithson Craighead Academy, Nashville’s first public charter school, attended the town hall meeting with several of her fellow School Sisters.
During an open discussion time, members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Nashville said that transportation and housing were of great concern to their clients and to them as well. Members of the JVC commit to one year of living in community and working at a local social service organization for a small stipend. Many of them rely on public transportation, which, in Nashville, is often difficult and time consuming to navigate, they noted.
Other participants in the town hall meeting pointed out how rapidly Nashville is changing, and how developers are often too eager to tear down and replace historic buildings without considering the ramifications. “There seems to be a disconnect between the ‘It City’ and the history of this city,” said the Rev. Jennifer Bailey of Greater Bethel AME Church. “We need to decide what is the soul of this city.”
“If you’re ‘It,’ you can’t have all this stuff going on,” said Sister Simone, pointing to a list she made as audience members spoke of the challenges facing Nashville. “How do we make change?” she asked, noting that it is much harder to find solutions than point out problems.
Some ideas for change included continuing the conversation in small groups and making connections with city and state lawmakers to raise a voice for justice during legislative sessions. Others mentioned the need to get out of their comfort zones and talk to people across racial and generational lines.
With so much divisiveness around political discussions these days, The Nuns on the Bus are urging people at all of their stops to strike up civil conversations whenever the opportunity arises. Practice “holy curiosity,” Sister Simone told those gathered at the town hall meeting. “Talk to each other, in the grocery line, wherever.” She also encouraged “sacred gossip,” that is, “once you learn something, share it.
“Everybody has a part to play…We each do our part, that’s how we bridge the divide,” she said.
The Nuns on the Bus tour culminated Sept. 22 with the nuns attending a rally on the National Mall in Washington to welcome Pope Francis to the United States.
On Sept. 23, the sisters attended the White House Papal Arrival Ceremony. On Sept. 24, Sister Simone attended Pope Francis’s address to the joint session of Congress as U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s guest, and the sisters witnessed the historic speech from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
After Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. concludes, the real work of the Nuns on the Bus begins, as they plan to lobby Congress as lawmakers negotiate the 2016 federal budget. “We will call on them to raise spending caps so human needs programs can be fully funded,” said Sister Simone.