A throng of admirers crammed in front of the United Methodist building across from the U.S. Capitol, waiting in the 95 degree heat for the Nuns on the Bus. This was the last stop of a 15-day tour through nine states, with opposition to the service cuts in the Ryan-House budget the theme. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, wouldn't lead an enterprise like this just to oppose something. The Nuns on the Bus were there to celebrate the work of agencies across the country that utilize federal funding to help the poor with love and respect and effective skill, and to promote an alternative vision.
One of the sisters participating in the tour was Richelle Friedman. Sister Richelle brings her fierce passion for justice to her work as director of public policy for the Coalition on Human Needs. Richelle joined the tour in Philadelphia and stayed through the end. Visiting the poverty-fighting sites and large gatherings en route, she shared some thoughts about her experiences in notes to the CHN staff:
From the moment I stepped on the bus on day 12 of this incredible 15-day journey with my co-travelers, we heard and saw amazing and powerful testimony of the proud work done at service organizations by Catholic Sisters and others we met along the way and of the many success stories of those on the receiving end of those services. All understand how detrimental Rep. Paul Ryan's House-passed budget would be to their efforts to provide nutritious meals, a place to call home, a safe and nurturing atmosphere for children to learn, and a place for seniors and persons with disabilities to come to experience companionship and respect and yes, even fun!
The first night I was on the bus Colleen spoke, a young 26-year-old social worker who works in the Kensington neighborhood, one of the poorest in Philadelphia. She spoke about the people they welcome with deep compassion and care to the Community Center at Visitation, and who in turn inspire her and capture her heart. Colleen understands that they are the ones who will be most adversely affected by the Ryan Budget.
Richelle learned that Pennsylvania would receive 159 million fewer emergency meals if the Ryan budget were to be carried out. "Then there is Joe," Richelle recounted, "a homebound diabetic in his 70's who is visited weekly by a healthcare worker from the Center - a worker who herself could well lose her job under the Ryan plan." Richelle quoted Colleen, who said, "By eliminating key services, we don't give our brothers and sisters who are already vulnerable a decent chance at survival, and if they falter we all do. We need to stand up for change, believe in hope, and trust the promise that our neighborhoods and neighbors are worth it.'"
The bus stopped often at ministries that cherish individuals and strengthen communities. Richelle visited Mercy Neighborhood Ministries in Philadelphia (MNM), where she received a tour of a classroom by 11-year-old Joiah Joseph and his teacher Sharon.
MNM is providing a respite from neighborhood violence as well as strengthening children's inner reserves to withstand it in their own lives.
Joiah Joseph proudly led the way. In a brightly painted and decorated classroom Sharon uses music, beautiful pictures of nature, breathing techniques, and exercises to assist the children in developing the inner peace and strength she knows they will need to face adversity and make hard choices.
Children as young as 3 come to MNM for daycare, children are taught in afterschool classes, adults learn computer skills and complete GEDs, and eldercare provides a place of dignity for seniors and a respite for caregivers. Sister Ann, a Sister of Mercy and director of MNM, found a way to purchase an old warehouse in the neighborhood and transform it into a green-certified building with a welcoming and beautiful learning space that is respectful of all who come. The entire neighborhood was rightly proud to share with us what's happening at MNM.
The Nuns on the Bus went to the district offices of 10 members of Congress who had voted for the Ryan budget. Richelle told us:
One day on our tour people gathered on a blacktop parking lot in over 95 degree weather in front of the Richmond, VA, office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who strongly supports the Ryan budget. They came to our press conference to express their gratitude to us for spreading the word about an alternative vision of federal policy that acknowledges our country's deficit and holds up a vision for meeting basic needs in a way that makes us a stronger nation. There I met Charlie and Donna who drove over 2 hours to be present. They told me they have done well financially and believe that they and others like them can contribute more in taxes to maintain programs vital to vulnerable families and individuals. They inspired me.
The alternative vision the nuns raised up is called the Faithful Budget. Developed by representatives of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths, the Faithful Budget calls for investments in education, health care, housing, and economic development to lift people out of poverty and increase economic security for all. The budget does all this while gradually reducing the deficit "through a tax system founded on fairness and shared commitment, where those who have reaped extraordinary benefits contribute proportionately to the good of all."
The Nuns on the Bus talked about this vision, and boiled it down to five words. As Richelle describes it,
Sr. Simone Campbell and we nuns on the bus asked those who came to the press conferences and evening 'friend raisers' to repeat three times the mantra, "Reasonable Revenues for Responsible Programs." We then asked them to repeat it four more times after they left the gatherings. It seems there's something about saying something seven times. As Simone says, 'After three times you remember it and after seven times you begin to truly believe it!'
As Sister Simone Campbell said at their Washington, D.C., event, "Sisters don't just do it with grace. For heaven's sake, we need money!" The Nuns on the Bus found, in Richelle's words, that "all who gathered understand that taxes need to be raised in order to maintain the programs vital to their communities."
Representative Ryan's budget is the antithesis of the vision held up by the Nuns on the Bus. Instead of "reasonable revenues for responsible programs," the House-passed budget slashes trillions in taxes even beyond the Bush-era tax cuts, overwhelmingly benefiting the rich. It makes massive cuts in virtually every domestic program, while increasing funds for the Pentagon. Thousands of people throughout their 2,700-mile tour came out to show that they rejected the Ryan budget. They were grateful to the sisters for demonstrating an alternative rooted in faith and also in patriotism and common sense.
I am grateful too. People of faith and of conscience must add their voices to tell Congress to act reasonably and responsibly. Rejecting the House leaders' efforts later this summer to extend the unfair tax breaks for the top 2 percent would be a good start.