Nuns on the Road

A gassed-up bus, scriptures about being a mustard seed and protest, all in the name of immigration reform.

Nuns on the Road

About two weeks ago a group of Catholic Nuns kicked off a cross-country road trip. The sisters, calling themselves Nuns on the Bus, intended to campaign across the lower 48 in support of comprehensive immigration reform. It wasn’t the first time they’d hit the road. They did so last year too – promoting economic justice.

This time, the sisters started their 15-state tour in Connecticut, swooped down through the south and crossed into the American southwest. Now they are in California, where they will be ending their trip next Tuesday, in San Francisco. I spoke with the leader of Nuns on the Bus, Simone Campbell, the Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, about what she and her fellow sisters have learned about modern-day American immigration, and what they want Americans to know about it.

What story are you trying to tell through your most recent Nuns on the Bus campaign?

Our story is about immigration being the glory of our past and the hope for our future, and we the people need to make comprehensive immigration reform now. The reason we’re on the road is because we have this political window, a convergence of so many people. It’s amazing. We would expect to be standing with mainline Protestants and Catholics, but we also have the evangelicals, we stand with local chambers of commerce, with an amazing education community, with day laborers, with unions. I mean, everybody’s on board with making this thing work.

I saw you were even standing alongside Marco Rubio.

(Laughs) Absolutely. And if you notice the route of our bus trip, we are supporting the brave republicans in the Gang of Eight who stood up and drafted the legislation for comprehensive immigration reform. It is an essential element that this be a bi-partisan bill, that we get a lot of votes in the Senate in a couple weeks, and then that we put pressure on the house of representatives to pick it up and to make it happen.

Who have you been talking with on the road? What are some of the most powerful stories you’ve heard?

I think of the entrepreneur trainer at Charlotte in our business roundtable. He talked about this amazing program that they’re doing training entrepreneurs to create businesses. And what he has found is that there’s a great interest in the immigrant community, to start businesses – markets and food stores and a variety of services. But there’s also a lot of fear. He spoke of one person who came with a college degree from a Latin American country but is here without papers and can’t a regular job. He is trying to create a business, but is so fearful that he can’t contribute to the economy. I had not realized how much fear is crippling our economy. These people don’t have a way in to use their talents and resources. That was a real surprise to me.

So would that be a theme, the paralyzation of fear?

Exactly. I think of folks who oppose immigration reform as being afraid, but then to see that people are also afraid to start a business, to go to work. In Savannah, we had a private meeting at the Mercy Convent, a retirement home, and this one young woman came with her parents. She’s a DREAMer kid and she had gotten her DACA papers. So she’s gotten this deferred action status, and she now has gotten her learners permit and is about to get her driver license. But here at 17, she has become the driver for her family because she worries too much about her parents driving without their papers or without a license. She is taking her parents to work, picking them up from work. And the apprehension that she experiences every day wondering what will happen to her parents, when she has status and her younger citizen brother are okay, but what will happen to her folks? And that she can do nothing to change their status other than try to protect them? I thought to myself, my heavens, isn’t that reversal of my experience as a young child, as a student growing up.

What is your understanding of the political, or even cultural, storylines of the people who disagree with you?

It seems like they believe that there’s not enough to go around. It’s a story of scarcity. And the fear is that if someone else comes in, I will lose my job. The facts are totally contrary to that. In terms of past experience, when there’s been immigration reform, the economy has grown. There’s also the fear of not knowing who’s in my neighborhood. Feeling secure is a big thing. We’ve really only encountered a few people, though, who are really opposing immigration reform, and it seemed like they were fearful that, one, they’d lose their job, and, two, well, they were Tea Party folks, and they had some narrative about how you shouldn’t change the law because you don’t change the bible, and I didn’t quite understand that argument, but…

(Laughs) I don’t either, to tell you the truth, but it seems like fear is the thing that keeps coming up, on the one side and on the other.

It does. And that’s the thing. With border security, for instance, you can’t just throw money and walls at fear. That doesn’t create security. What does, and what our constitution says, is that it’s we the people, coming together, and so one of my lines has been it’s not we the citizens, it’s not we the ones who got here first. It’s all of us who live here.

What’s would be some potential benefits of immigration reform?

We were in Scranton that first day, and the mayor, Christopher Dougherty, came to an event, and he talked about how Scranton benefitted from nearby Hazleton’s punitive immigration laws.

You’re talking about Lou Barletta.

Yeah, Lou Barletta. So, the mayor of Scranton, he was saying that there had been a revitalization of many parts of the town because of the immigrant community that moved over from Hazleton, and that it is the American dream that gives people this sense of engagement and encouragement, and that currently in Scranton there are 30 languages spoken as the first language of kids in high school.


Can you believe? And now here in Alabama, we were reading about how some of the proponents of that horrible state law, now they’re saying it wasn’t such a good idea because the immigrants are leaving and moving to other states. We heard that in North Carolina agriculture really benefited from the coming of agricultural workers. So, I mean, it’s a complex jigsaw puzzle.

Where does the religious element come in? Do you think that your work as a nun has the power to cut through the noise?

I sure hope so. There’s something about nuns that seems to cut to the heart of things. It seems like we’re trusted folks who can give a straight message. One thing is we don’t have an economic interest in any of this. We only care about living the gospel, and so I think that has a power and clarity that is sorely lacking in this world.

What makes it clear?

We gather every morning for prayer, and the other day one of the scripture verses we meditated one was the one about being a mustard seed. Do you remember that story? If you plant the mustard seed, it grows into this big tree. And that’s what we’re doing, planting these little seeds. I think the religious component compels us to do it – it makes us free to do it. For me it strikes to the heart of human dignity and community. The biggest thing left for me is calling out the unpatriotic lie that we’re based in individualism. That is clearly not true in faith. All faith draws people in – into community. And that’s what we’re about on the road.