Nuns on the Bus are rock stars in the world of activism for social justice.
The group of Catholic religious women travels from city to city advocating for a higher minimum wage, a more welcoming immigration policy and more inclusive voter registration laws. Their chartered bus, emblazoned with a map of their 2016 journey and the signatures of thousands of people they’ve met along the way, rolled into downtown Buffalo for the first time Wednesday morning.
And the Rev. Kirk A. Laubenstein, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, a local group that toils for many of the same causes, could hardly contain his glee.
“When the bus pulled up, I felt like a kid at Christmas,” said Laubenstein, one of a few hundred people who greeted the eight traveling nuns at Cathedral Park, outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the group, said the latest tour is an effort to counter growing anger and polarization in society, while mending economic and social divides. Earlier this week, the nuns were in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, handing out cold lemonade and asking people what gave them hope for the future of the country.
“They couldn’t think of what gave them hope,” Campbell said. “We were just trying to get people to think of hope more as an alternative. We’re trying to help people think: ‘It can be different.’ ”
The nuns’ 23-city tour began July 11 in Madison, Wis., and will conclude later this month in Philadelphia, site of the Democratic National Convention.
Nuns on the Bus was spawned from the Vatican’s stern 2012 rebuke of U.S. nuns for allegedly promoting “radical feminist themes” inconsistent with Catholic teachings. The crackdown ignited a firestorm in the American church, with many Catholics defending the sisters and blasting the bishops and others in the Vatican hierarchy for the harsh review. Some Catholics speculated that the assessment was retribution for the sisters’ support of the Affordable Care Act, which was opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That support wasn’t lost on Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who remembers the uncertainty of getting the Affordable Care Act passed. The sisters, said Higgins, “didn’t just support health care reform; they saved it. And 20 million people today have health care that otherwise would not.”
Instead of retreating from the censure, a group of nuns decided to make their social activism even better known by taking it on the road. Their debut tour protested a congressional budget plan that would have drastically cut human services funding. Subsequent tours focused on immigration reform and Pope Francis’ U.S. visit. Campbell said the Vatican censure was largely water under the bridge.
Judy Fitzgerald, of the Town of Tonawanda, remembers the nuns of her youth being out of touch with the wider world. “Now – wow – they’re the part of the church that is really leading the church,” she said.
In a show of support, Fitzgerald signed her name to the bus, which pulled away, bound for Rochester.