Nuns vs. Romney: The Sisters Hit the Battleground State of Ohio

The ‘Nuns on the Bus’ stop in Cleveland in their national road trip, protesting the Ryan budget and proposals that would cut services to the poor.

Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

You’d never know it, but the four placid ladies sitting at the window table in Grumpy’s Café, eating french toast and Cajun home fries, have their hair on fire. That’s why they’ve traveled an hour from Sandusky, Ohio, to this popular eatery in the gentrifying inner-ring Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont.

“We’re here this morning to see the ‘Nuns on the Bus,’” explains Anne Lamb. Between the Ryan budget and what the Vatican is doing to these sisters (criticizing them for emphasizing social needs over abortion and homosexuality issues), Lamb declares, “They need all the support we can give.”

Nuns on the Bus” may sound like a wacky new Betty White sitcom featuring a feisty group of sisters who won’t be put in the corner by their church. And except for the comedy film part, that’s a pretty good description. This rolling event features a group of Roman Catholic nuns on a nine-state, 15-day tour, focused on protesting the budget bill spearheaded by Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) and backed by presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The trip is sponsored by Network, a national Catholic justice lobby; Network is affiliated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns.

Once the tour bus pulls into the narrow street beside St. Augustine Church, a couple of blocks down from Grumpy’s, the five nuns on board exit to applause from more than 50 people gathered to meet them. After a short tour of the church and an impromptu meeting with local kids from the church’s summer camp, Sister Simone Campbell stands behind her portable podium to address the crowd.

As Network’s executive director, Sister Simone has plenty to say: “Catholic sisters know the real-life struggles of real-life Americans. When the federal government cuts funding to programs that serve people in poverty, as does the current House Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, we see the effect in our daily work. Simply put, real people suffer, and that is immoral.”

Sister Simone speaks with a gentle, lilting voice, but her words are pointed and direct. Speaking at the bus tour’s kickoff event in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 17, she said, “The reason we’re out around the country is because most people don’t know what the House of Representatives has done.” What it has done, in Sister Simone’s view, is attempt to reduce the deficit by cutting vital social services to vulnerable families while further reducing the income taxes for the top 2 percent.

This is a view that is shared by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization that acts collaboratively on issues important to the church and society. In letters to Congress, the conference has stated its opposition to the budget cuts, indicating that the “circle of protection” around essential programs for poor people has been broken.

But what seems to really fuel the passion of Sister Simone and the other nuns on the bus is Rep. Ryan’s statement that his budget was informed by his Catholic social teachings. As Sister Simone noted in the Des Moines speech, “If he hadn’t uttered those words, I don’t think we’d have a bus trip. He made me mad.”

Last summer, Congress allowed the Obama administration to boost the debt limit, but in return insisted on budget cuts. The resulting agreement led to the passage of the Budget Control Act, which cut $917 billion over the next decade. The Ryan budget (passed by the House in March, rejected by the Senate in May) seeks $2 trillion more in cuts over the next 10 years. Half of those cuts will be imposed through “sequestration.” These are automatic, across-the-board reductions of about 9 percent in 2013, with more cuts in the years to follow through 2021. Most Republicans, including Romney, have pledged to make the Ryan budget law if they control the Senate in November.

According to a report issued by Policy Matters Ohio in March 2012, the proposed sequestrations will take an estimated $312 million from Ohio in the next calendar year. Since some state programs in health and human services receive most of their funding from the federal government, the report indicates that the impact of the cuts will be felt most severely by children in lower-income families.

That all explains why the nuns are travelling on a large bus wrapped in catchy, colorful graphics and accented by their tour tagline, “Nuns drive for faith, family, and fairness.” The bus is stopping at churches, homeless shelters, food pantries, and other locations where nuns are working with families that need many kinds of assistance. They’re hitting cities including Chicago, South Bend, Ind., Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

Since there is only room for 12 people on the bus (there are small sleeping berths for all, plus tiny lounge and office areas), a maximum of seven nuns ride at any one time. They are joined by a couple of support staff, two drivers who rotate shifts, and some embedded members of the media. Clearly, the close quarters necessitate interesting adjustments.

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One rule of the road is that the on-board bathroom is “aces only” (no deuces), so when the latter type of pit stop is required, the nuns alert their driver to find a gas station.

Sister Diane Donoghue, a feisty 81-year-old who is booked for the entire trip, says it’s very symbolic. “This is what the idea of community is all about—responding to people’s needs. So,” she adds with a smile, “we’re living what we’re preaching,”

At a later stop, at the Incarnate Word Convent in the working-class Cleveland suburb of Parma Heights, Sister Simone takes a moment to expound on the mission of the bus tour. “When speaking about finding more money for certain social needs, we have boiled it down to five words: ‘reasonable revenue for responsible programs.’ We’re not looking for unreasonable amounts of money, and we have no interest in funding programs that don’t take their responsibilities seriously.”

As for the beneficiaries of those funds, Sister Simone has another important reminder. “More than 60 percent of the beneficiaries are working people. But without the programs that help provide housing or meals, they would have to choose between the two. Their pay doesn’t cover the whole tab.”

And as for the Vatican singling out American nuns for criticism, Sister Simone says, “It hurt, I can tell you that. But ultimately, they probably did us a favor. The notoriety they provided for us has given us a much higher profile, and we can use that.”

For those who agree with these sisters, this bus outreach is a powerful gesture. As Sister Diane points out, “People say thank you to us, and tell us we’ve restored their faith in the possibility of church.”

And the nuns are helping alleviate the dismay felt by the ladies from Sandusky. One of whom, Nettie Cox, can’t figure one thing out. Speaking of the “2 percenters,” she wonders, “How can they be happy when they’re surrounded by people in pain?”

It’s a question these nuns are, quite literally, driven to answer.