Main Street in Janesville, Wisconsin was buzzing today as a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered in front of Rep. Paul Ryan's home office, waiting for a bus to arrive.
The bus carried four nuns on a tour across the Midwest, challenging both the policy and the theology of Ryan's budget plan for the U.S.
The crowd and the bus were far different than the scene on Monday in Janesville when Mitt Romney's bus and its entourage rolled into town as part of the Republican presidential candidates' sweep across the heartland.
At his appearance in front of an enthusiastic crowd in a textile factory, Romney was joined by Ryan, as well as Gov. Scott Walker. They sketched out a vision for America's future very different that that offered by the nuns on a bus.
As the nuns' bus pulled up, the crowd greeted Sr. Simone Campbell and her three colleagues like heroes. "Thank you, thank you," the group chanted as the nuns worked their way through the throng towards Ryan's office in a downtown mall building.
Ryan's constituent services director was there to meet the nuns - a sharp contrast from their experience in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday where Cong. Steve King's office was dark and locked when they arrived.
Sister Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice organization known as Network, characterized the meeting with Ryan's staff as very cordial. She emphasized the importance of people with differing viewpoints engaging in conversation over their differences.
The differences between Ryan and the nuns go to the heart of their views of the world, Two signs in the crowd caught the difference well. They also caught the tensions in Ryan's own formation that includes inspiration both from this Catholic faith and from author Ayn Rand.
Kristie Borgwardt of Janesville held up a sign that said "Paul Ryan worships Ayn Rand, not God," a reflection of his comments over the years about the profound influence that particular philosopher had on his view of the world. Rand argued strongly for the supremacy of the individual.
Christine Krause of South Beloit, a city just to the south of Janesville, had a sign that said "Solidarity in Community Before Individuality," a theme that Campbell and the other nuns have been stressing in answer to Ryan's citation of Catholic teaching in how he approaches the nation's issues.
Campbell said as the tour began that it was Ryan's use of his understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice that propelled her and the other nuns out on this tour. Theologians, Catholics activists, even the U.S. Conference of Bishops, have taken issue with Ryan's interpretation of Catholic theology.
Ryan did not engage the nuns directly about theology on this day. Perhaps he thought that you can't really win a public religious argument with a nun. He did issue a statement citing high unemployment, persistent poverty, the national debt and said that "Washington owes the American people bold and targeted reforms and real solutions that address today's most urgent fiscal challenges."
For the nuns, the tour is about more than debating points. They left Janesville headed for Milwaukee, where they would be at a long-standing meal program run by one of the churches. They know what it's like to be in the midst of the poor.
They also know churches and other faith communities cannot meet the challenges of poverty alone. As Campbell is fond of reminding crowds, if every church, synagogue and mosque and other faith community in the nation were to try to do what federal programs now do, it would cost them each an additional $50,000 a year for the next 10 years beyond what they are doing now.
The nuns were also conscious of the roiling controversy with the Catholic hierarchy over their public advocacy for the poor while not paying much attention to issues like abortion. Campbell noted pointed that they care about all issues across the spectrum of life but that their focus is on the lives of those in poverty.
And then the bus rolled on. The tour continues, ending in early July in Washington, D.C. with stops along the way in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Oho, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
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