National awareness and social action campaign visits Grand Rapids lawmaker
By Mark Haney
The Catholic Weekly
GRAND RAPIDS — From Monday, June 18, through Monday, July 2, a small cadre of sisters from Network, the nation Catholic social justice lobby, traveled the midsection of the U.S. on a mission.
Not an “Elmer Gantry”-style mission. More like a “Blues Brothers” mission from God.
The 15-day tour, which took the nuns — 14 of them ride the bus in a rotation — from Ames, Iowa to Washington, D.C., was tailored to let them visit Catholic-sponsored social service agencies and to speak to federal lawmakers in their home district offices in order to convince the lawmakers not to support the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Starting in 2014, the budget would cut funding for education, social services and public health by 19 percent below current spending. It would eliminate $5.3 trillion in spending over the next 10 years.
If the budget is enacted into law — it has passed the House but has not yet been taken up by the Senate — the Coalition of Human Needs estimates roughly 2 million fewer children will be enrolled in Headstart, 1.8 million women and children would lose nutrition assistance and about 400,000 low-income families would lose rental-assistance vouchers.
Ryan has said that the cutbacks are in tune with his own Catholic faith and his interpretation of its social teachings.
A number of people showed up to support the “Nuns on the Bus” tour when it stopped Friday, June 22, at the Grand Rapids office of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Grand Rapids).
Ellen Burns came all the way from Dimondale to show her support.
The member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing said she came “in support of the sisters. We’d like to have talked to the representative about the Ryan budget. We support them trying to stop the budget or at least change the budget so it would be more inclusive, instead of giving a little tax relief to the middle class and a huge break to the rich.”
Kim Franks from Kalamazoo came with her husband, Jim Rose, a member of St. Thomas More Parish.
“We believe in their motto of ‘Nuns Drive for Faith, Family and Fairness,’” she said. “We are concerned about the Ryan budget and what it is going to do to the poor, to the least advantaged and how it is going to, again, support the 1 percent. I think this particular effort is really based on Matthew 25: ‘When I was hungry you fed me. When I was in prison, you visited me.’ It is really scripturally based. We know that Jesus would be here based on what we know of Scriptures.”
JoAnn Simons of Grand Rapids also was on hand.
“I’m here because the Ryan budget would do so much damage to the poor, who already have suffered so much,” she said, “and to the elderly and to anyone who is not doing well.”
Burns, Franks, Rose and Simons tried to join the traveling nuns in their visit with Amash, but were denied because they carried signs and had cameras.
“They made us move our signs,” said Franks, “or they said we’d be arrested because you can’t have signs on federal property.”
The nuns haven’t always been welcomed either. In Iowa, Rep. Steve King’s offices were locked when the sisters arrived, even though they had a scheduled appointment with the lawmaker.
Ironically, Amash did not support the Ryan budget. But that was not in the nuns’ favor.
He told the nuns he voted against the Ryan budget, said Sr. Marge Clark, one of the nuns on the bus and a Network lobbyist, “because it doesn’t do enough. He thinks it needs to cut even more. He is of a mind there shouldn’t be a government doing anything.”
“Most of the people, from my impression, who want less government are the same people who benefited from government programs when they were younger,” one woman said. “And they don’t even recognize how much they benefited.”
Sr. Mary Navarre, a Grand Rapids Dominican, was on hand because her congregation is a Network member and because the nuns and the bus stayed overnight at Marywood, home of the order.
“We are very adamant that legislation shouldn’t pull the rug out from under the most poor and vulnerable,” she said. “And the Ryan budget does that. I understand that Ryan feels everyone should be personally responsible and I agree. But if the playing field is not even to start with, then we have to think about maybe that’s not a rule you can always apply.”
Sr. Mary Ann Barrett, a fellow Grand Rapids Dominican, thinks the Ryan plans relies too much on churches.
“I know they are pushing faith-based initiatives,” she said. “But if you have ever worked in a parish, you would know there is no way a parish can pick up all of the people who go right through the holes in the system. The increase in the number of people needing assistance because they are unemployed, have been foreclosed on, evicted, people who really hurt, is on the rise.”
Sr. Navarre agreed.
“The calculation is that if every parish, church, synagogue and mosque raised $50,000 a year to fund help for the needy, it still would not be enough to offset what the Ryan budget cuts,” she said. “I don’t know of any parish that can raise $50,000 once, let alone for years. The need is so great.”
While she has hope the people of the U.S. will rise to the occasion and help the needy, she offered a reminder.
“We are all brothers and sisters and we should take care of each other,” she said. “It is like a family. … We don’t abandon a relative who is having trouble. We support them.
“We have such abundance in this country. We really do. I think there is enough to go around. There is more food than we actually need in the world. But in this country we waste so much.”
The mood, however, was a little somber after the nuns left the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building once they had visited with Amash.
Do you think you were effective? “No,” said Sr. Clark.
Do you think you have been effective on this trip? “Yes,” she said.
“I hope the Senate doesn’t pass the Ryan budget,” Sr. Navarre said. “I hope enough people see it for what it is and oppose it. This would be devastating to our country and to our obligation as responsible citizens and as Catholics.”
Some of those who came to the Grand Rapids stop, however, were more concerned with the nuns than with the proposed budget.
“We just wanted the sisters to know they are not alone,” said Franks, “that they have great support.”
“They are doing God’s work,” said Burns. “They work with the poor, the needy, the street people. They are actually working with the people and doing what Jesus commanded all of us to do.”