WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Nuns on the Bus will hit the road Sept. 10 on a two-week route that passes through “deep red and purple states” on the way to the nation’s capital.
At a time when Republican presidential candidates compete with one another in their demands for the federal government to spend less on social programs and to rein in illegal immigration, the sisters will carry a significantly different message on their tour.
The theme of the fourth annual bus tour is “Bridge the Divides, Transform Politics,” and was to kick off in St. Louis and conclude as Pope Francis visits Washington Sept. 22-24.
In response to the pope’s call to be involved in politics for the common good, the sisters will highlight economic inequality and cuts in health care and education that they say not only disproportionately affect those dependent on government assistance, but also exhibit a disregard for their struggles and exacerbate the growing gap between the rich and poor.
“We can’t have politics of inclusion without economic inclusion for all,” said Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service and executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, which has organized the tours since their inception in 2012.
Nearly a dozen sisters will travel about 2,000 miles through seven states: Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia. Previous tours traveled through less conservative communities. This time, Sister Simone said, “we’re stopping in red states, purple states. We’re saying, ‘We have to come together.'”
Kansas, in particular, has taken positions that are anathema to the sisters’ belief that government assistance programs should be expanded, not dismantled. The sisters were to convene a town hall meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, Sept. 11 and in Topeka, Kansas, the capital, Sept. 12. Sister Simone will speak and then pose questions for attendees. Similar town hall meetings will convene elsewhere along the route as the sisters planned to collect people’s stories in hopes of delivering them to members of Congress.
“We need everyone at the table to solve these problems,” Sister Simone said. “The urgency I feel is expressed through people’s experiences. Hearing their stories is more important than theorizing. If I hear their stories, I will better understand them.”
In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback has been largely successful in implementing a conservative agenda while laying the foundation for what he has called “a real live experiment.” Under Brownback, legislators approved the largest income tax reductions in Kansas history, set new limits on abortion and significantly reduced welfare rolls and some state government bureaucracy.
Critics say the experiment has failed. The cuts in welfare, they say, have not led to greater employment for poor people and, worse, are mean-spirited. As an example, they cite the recent effort to impose a $25-a-day cash limit on the money recipients of public aid can withdraw from an ATM. The law also would have prevented them from using cash assistance from the state to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic and buy lingerie, among other things. Although more than 20 other states have such restrictions, the one assembled by the Kansas Legislature would have been the most severe of all, according to state Department for Children and Families officials.
The limit would have been costly for many poor families who rely on cash for major expenses because withdrawals incur fees. Criticism of the plan as well as questions about its legality forced the administration to retreat. However, lawmakers promise to revisit the issue later.
While Brownback insists the income tax cuts will create jobs, critics charge that eliminations of tax credits and increases in sales taxes will cost the most to those least able to afford it, saddling them with the responsibility to finance the state’s gaping budget deficit.
The job-creating stimulus that the tax cuts were supposed to fuel so far has not taken off. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in August found that Kansas lost 4,300 jobs in July as the unemployment rate climbed for the fourth straight month, up to 4.6 percent. Furthermore, Kansas has 1,700 fewer jobs than it did at the start of 2015. In the last year, Kansas added just 5,600 total jobs, many of those low-paying, service sector jobs.
For social service agencies that serve poor people, the truth lies in numbers, which point to rising need among the needy.
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, for instance, provided food for more than 12,000 people in a 21-county area in July 2014. In July of this year, that number was up about 67 percent, to 20,000 people.
“With this significant of a jump of neighbors in need, I would say there are likely several socioeconomic factors at hand,” said Dustin Hardison, director of family stabilization for Catholic Charities.
In Leavenworth, the Interfaith Shelter of Hope administered by 20 churches fills to capacity almost every night, said Sister Vickie Perkins, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
“We have a man right now, he has Huntington’s disease,” Sister Vickie said. “We have made two requests to adult protective services. He has been screened out each time. They can’t deal with it. They have no funding.”
Sister Simone said she expects to hear similar stories on the bus tour. She hopes the stories will not only enlighten policymakers, but also motivate communities to act on behalf of those in need.
“It is interesting to me that for some, faith is personal with no social responsibility,” Sister Simone said. “Faith is about community as well as my faith in God. I think in our wealthy nation, the seduction of wealth makes us think we can do it alone. We can’t exploit each other. We must find a way forward that values all of life.”
Garcia is a freelance writer.