Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being a witness to a pretty incredible event – several Catholic nuns on a large 55-foot bus, came to Janesville – in order to protest Paul Ryan’s budget, which was passed by the United State House of Representatives. The nuns, led by Sister Simone Campbell, made a point of highlighting how much Paul Ryan’s budget will hurt those who have the least, and how they, as nuns, cannot stand by and not speak up about it.
As the word about this event began to spread around Janesville, I could tell that the turn out was going to be a good one. No matter the weather – 95 degrees – or the short notice, the idea of Catholic nuns making a political statement on the social justice of their mission, objecting to Paul Ryan, was guaranteed to be the hot ticket in town. What we were not prepared for, was the reality of the experience: Not only was it impressive to see women who felt so strongly about their convictions that they chose to defy whatever consequences may come to them from those above them in the Church hierarchy, but the entire experience was simply moving, and the crowd – two hundred at least – immediately recognized it. Whether this was because the nuns were not dressed in black and white, (a relief to many I’m sure, considering the weather) but were instead dressed in nice street clothes, or because they were a quiet group of determined women, or because they were nuns, was not exactly clear. More then likely, it was the combination of all of it. The crowd, the signs, the positive feeling of being involved in a protest, and the nuns, created an atmosphere many have not experienced before (or it least in a while). If not quite like winning an election, it reminded everyone of what’s at stake.
Here’s what actually happened: the bus showed up and parked across the street from Paul Ryan’s office. Surrounded by cameras, the nuns exited and walked across the street to a crowd that was cheering and chanting “Thank You! Thank You!” Seemingly overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response, the nuns entered the Old Towne Mall where Paul Ryan’s office is located, and followed by several media representatives, walked into the Congressman’s office. There, they were greeted by staff members – Paul Ryan was not expected, nor was he there – their requests were heard (partially in front of the media, partially in a private conference room), and then the nuns exited. During that time the crowd staged an improvised Solidarity Sing Along led by the Raging Grannies, outside of the office but inside the mall. Standing on two levels, people were singing together and waiting for the nuns to emerge. Once the nuns came out, they went back across the street where Sister Simone Campbell made a statement to the media about their visit. Afterwards the bus moved a block over and the nuns came out once again, this time at the Courthouse Park. Sister Simone Campbell spoke to the crowd, thanking them and expounding on the need for us to talk to each other. Then the nuns got on the bus and left. Just like that.
Standing around with the other protesters who I got to know over the past year and a half, we talked about the impressive turn out (in spite of the 95 degree heat). It seemed to us that even though the nuns were in Janesville because of Paul Ryan, had it not been for us practicing protesting since the February of last year, it would’ve been hard to imagine so many people turning out for an event that was only announced a few days in advance. We are now clearly in a fighting shape.
A special note of recognition goes to Rob Zerban who is running for US Congress against Paul Ryan. Rob was at the event, speaking with the media, visiting with people, and overall providing that quiet, solid and positive leadership that the 1st Congressional District has so missed.
I am no specialist on Catholic politics, but no matter what the Vatican will have to say about this, on the ground, this was clearly a very positive development for the Church. I spoke with many people who have never felt as positive about the Catholic church as they did today, following the visit from the Nuns on the Bus. These included Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Quaker, Jews, and others. If my job was to promote Catholicism, I would be wise to take note of this.
A friend walked up to Sister Simone and said “I’m Lutheran, and you’re a Catholic, but it doesn’t matter.” Sister Simone replied “It’s true. A Jewish Rabbi told me that.” Following the loss of the recall, there was a certain longing for something strong, powerful and positive. Nuns on the Bus reminded Janesville’s faithful believers in democracy about solidarity in all of its forms, and they gave us that inspiration to continue to stand for what is right. It was a privilege to witness it.
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