BENNINGTON >> The nationally known "Nuns on the Bus" tour will be stopping in town on Thursday, July 21, for a community potluck dinner at the Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Parish Center, 238 Main St. The event is planned for 4 p.m.
Overall, about 20 Catholic sisters from around the country will visit 13 states and both major party conventions on a tour that begins July 11. According to the press release announcing the stop, the nuns are calling for 'a new politics of inclusion" in what has been a divisive political season.
The Rev. Bob Wiseman, CSC, pastor of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales is pleased that the tour will be visiting.
"I am thrilled that the 'Nuns on the Bus' have chosen to make their only stop in Vermont to be Bennington," he said. "Following the words Pope Francis 'the Church is a field hospital,' these dedicated religious women are addressing folks who are hurting both physically and economically. They also want to encourage leaders of the community to find ways to help."
The theme of the tour is "Mend the Gaps: Re-Weave the Fabric of our Society." The gaps they are speaking of are primarily economic but also the gaps between people and groups. To help get the point across the bus will be painted like a quilt map of the U.S. with this tour's route on it. Those taking the pledge to "Mend the Gaps in my community and call on my policymakers to do the same" will get to sign the bus, said Sister Simone Campbell in a phone interview on Friday.
According to the press release announcing the visit, "In an election year when fear, intolerance, and bigotry have become common political conversation, the Nuns on the Bus are coming to Vermont to remind Americans that we are stronger together and it is long past time to mend the gaps between us that weaken the very fabric of our society."
Campbell, 71, a Sister of Social Service, is executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, which launched the first Nuns on the Bus tour during the 2012 presidential campaign. She is originally from Santa Monica, Calif., and is an attorney.
"Pope Francis challenges all people to come together to work for the common good," she said in the release. "On our journey as Nuns on the Bus we will talk to those Pope Francis voters and, hopefully, inspire them to make mending the gaps the defining issue of the 2016 election."
NETWORK advocates for justice inspired by Catholic sisters, educates, organizes, and lobbies for economic and social transformation.
Campbell said in the interview that the Nuns on the Bus tour has been trying to visit different areas of the country each time and they have not been to Vermont before. She says she jokes they are "trying to collect states and we needed Vermont." More seriously, Campbell said the state is unique in that it is rural, made up mostly of small towns and is progressive, with a strong community orientation of its own.
Asked her reaction, she called the recent police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, now countered by the murder Thursday of five police officers by a sniper in Dallas, "horrible, a horror."
Each incident speaks of fear of each other, isolation, lack of community, with resulting violence and horror. "That horror is tearing our democracy apart," she said. "We're in this together."
The tour will begin with a kick-off rally on Thursday, July 14, in Janesville, Wisc., home of House Speaker Paul Ryan. From there, the tour will head south into Illinois, then east with stops in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The tour will be at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland for two days. Before the community potluck dinner in Bennington at 4 p.m., the nuns will be at a rally at the capitol in Albany, N.Y., at noon.
The following day, July 22, the tour will stop at a rally at the State House in Concord, N.H. The tour will make stops in Boston, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey, before concluding with four days in Philadelphia during and after the Democratic National Convention, July 26 to 29.
Previous tours, starting in 2012, have focused on economic justice, Medicaid expansion, immigration reform, civic engagement and voting, and welcoming Pope Francis to the United State in 2015.
Campbell spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where she received a warm response from the attendees. Her speech included criticisms of U.S. Rep. and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's proposed budget — which included cuts to social safety net programs — which was endorsed by his presidential running mate, Mitt Romney,
Needless to say, conservatives and politically conservative Catholics have been at times unenthusiastic about and critical of both Nuns on the Bus and Campbell. For instance, the website catholicvote.org in an Oct. 20, 2014 article took issue with Campbell's portrayal of Republicans, conservative Catholic bishops and her views on abortion.
Campbell in turn said this Nuns on the Bus tour will be offering a prayer service for the delegates at the Republican Convention. While the nuns will be offering workshops at the Democratic convention, the same opportunity had been offered to the Republicans, but did not materialize due to disorganization in convention arrangements. The tour is "an equal opportunity agitator," she said.
Moreover, Campbell said that Paul Ryan has recently begun to speak about poverty and starting the tour in his Wisconsin hometown and Congressional district was a way of positively acknowledging and affirming this. Additionally, Janesville is symbolic of the divisions in the United States because part of the city is also in the Congressional district of Democratic U.S Rep. Mark Pocan, a progressive.
As for economic inequality and wealth disparity, she has hope, for these are the result of policies we have chosen that are not working. "We can choose policies that are different," he said. "I know we can change."