Back on the Bus
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 14, 2014


In her poem “Living Waters” Simone Campbell shares this with us:

Impetuous me favors the passionate tumult of Spring river flooding.
Sensuous me favors the indolent caress of Summer river flowing.
Reflective me favors the penetrating seep of Autumn river trickling.
Even aloof shy me favors the chilled reserve of Winter river freezing.
But all of me resists evaporation.

Throughout all the season of our lives, she reminds us, we may very well be willing to bow and bend to the needs of the time; at one time impetuous and at another reflective.

What I really want to talk about today is the seamless blending of spirit and politics, the mutual dependence of contemplation and social action for the living of an authentic and meaningful life. The entrance to that topic is Sister Simone Campbell whom I met this summer at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. She was our Ware Lecturer. After her talk to a few thousand UUs, I stood in line with my mother to buy her book and have her autograph it for me.

Simone Campbell made her first national splash around 2010 when she authored a letter supporting health care reform. Her letter, known as the “Nun’s Letter” was co-signed by nearly 60 leaders of Catholic Sisters and is considered to have been critically important in the passing of the Affordable Care Act. She and other Religious Sisters caught a lot of flack from the Cardinals and eventually even the Vatican over that.

But really it was two years later that Simone Campbell’s name became nationally known – or if not her name then the moniker under which she travelled. She was the lead spokesperson for “Nuns on the Bus.” Sr. Simone is currently the executive director of NETWORK, the Catholic Social Justice organization that has been involved in legislative ministry for decades. The “Nuns of the Bus” project is part of NETWORK. In 2012, Sr. Campbell and others travelled to key states to raise awareness about the immoral budget under consideration in Congress. The “Ryan Budget” was poised to dramatically underfund the social safety net while giving tax breaks to the super wealthy. She helped in the crafting of a counter-proposal they called the “Faithful Budget” which took seriously the moral call to care for the poor.

In 2013 they took to the bus again to call for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform. Now, in 2014, they will launch a third bus tour a few days from today to take a stand against the influence of big money on election. They are taking aim against “Citizen’s United,” a Supreme Court decision that strangely decided that money in politics is like speech (and is therefore protected ‘speech’ and can’t be regulated.) Sister Simone Campbell and others are working to stop “We the corporations and big money interests” and bring back “We the people.”

Sister Campbell is a liberal rabble-rouser, a radical feminist, an ‘activist nun.’ But she is much more than that as well. She is a deeply spiritual person who is focus is more on faith than on activism. She is committed to a justice ministry based out of her Catholic moral calling. She doesn’t talk a lot about ‘faith,’ she tends speak instead about being among the ‘walking willing.’ In her Ware lecture she talked about ‘walking toward trouble.’ I wind both of these phrases to capture a dynamic concept of faith that is attractive to me and palatable to many Unitarian Universalists: Faith, not as believing in something but as ‘walking toward trouble,’ as being counted among the ‘walking willing.’

I noticed several friends comment after her Ware Lecture that she sounded just like a Unitarian Universalist. And I suppose in some respects she very much does. The social issues she champions are the social issues I hear many Unitarian Universalists championing. The values she lifts up are the values I hear lifted up in this and other UU congregations. But the faith that calls her into this work and ministry is a very Catholic faith. The reason she is involved in immigration and health care and voting rights is because she has a deep Catholic faith that calls her to care for the poor.

I think we sometimes forget the range of people who join with us in common cause. The Catholics are often overly focused on a narrow version of sexual morality with talking points around conception and abortion and homosexuality while trying hard to avoid the talking points around priests who have sexually abused people. But there is far more to the Catholic perspective on morality than issues of sexuality. Liberal Catholics do sound a lot like Unitarian Universalist. One of the biggest distinctions is that while Unitarian Universalists generally believe the universe arises from natural phenomena, Catholics believe it arises from a supernatural phenomenon. Each theological system of understanding life and meaning and values unfolds from those different starting points, yet remarkably end up in some very similar places: humanity is precious and loved as well as called to care for each other and our world.

So, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find ourselves agreeing with Sister Simone Campbell and in common cause with some radical liberal Catholics engaged in social justice. I remember a wedding I did early in my ministry for a couple who both had a number of priests, sisters and nuns in their extended family. The couple wanted a Unitarian Universalists to do the ceremony because they knew I could both honor the spirituality of the couple as well as the Catholic background of their families. During the receiving line I overheard a pair of elderly Catholic sisters in habits talking about me. “Where is that fellow from, the one who did the ceremony?” “He’s a Unitarian; you know the ones who are always with us at the rallies and marches.” “Oh, yes,” they nodded to themselves approvingly. In other words, they recognized me as one counted among the ‘walking willing.’

When you really get down to doing ministry that helps people, it can be surprising who you may find working with you. In her book Sr. Campbell reflected on the direction her work was taking and writes “The people we were hoping to help through our ministries aren’t all Catholics, not by a long shot. And our allies in finding solutions and serving others aren’t always Catholics either.” (p199)

She talks about how early in her life she tried to have an impact and learned that being filled with good intentions is not enough. She needed to be trained too. She became a family lawyer so she would have the skills as well as the passion to make a difference. It is not enough to just have faith, to be willing; there needs to be a practice to go with it. It is not enough to just do action; it must be compassion in action.

Earlier I quoted the first stanza of Simone Campbell’s poem “Living Waters.” Let me share with you the second half.

Impetuous me favors the passionate tumult of Spring river flooding.
Sensuous me favors the indolent caress of Summer river flowing.
Reflective me favors the penetrating seep of Autumn river trickling.
Even aloof shy me favors the chilled reserve of Winter river freezing.
But all of me resists evaporation.

I resist the sucking pulling warm air wresting me from known boundaries.
I resist drifting unseen to unknown parts.
I resist the uncertainty of unformed floating yearning
rather to surround rocks, carve new paths.
I resist the ambiguous foggy drift.
But luckily, at times, I am yanked into air. There

behold earth’s
anguish: weep!
Weeping, raining,
puddling … perhaps
the beginning of an
exuberant Spring.

The world is full of all manner of terrible things. The secret Sister Campbell knows is that we the best way to be an activist and stay spiritually grounded is to have faith enough to walk toward that trouble willingly. There are wars to protest, food pantries to support, legislation to oppose, grassroots organizing to encourage. There are issues and agendas and campaigns for change. Yet there are also people in need: loved ones have died, medical bills have added up, marriages are in trouble, and houses have been foreclosed. Everyone carries their own burdens; each of us is weighed down by our private cares and concerns. Meanwhile the world cries out with injustice and suffering on the global scale. Sometimes what is needed is a passionate, impetuous response. Other times the world is best served by a reflective yet penetrating response. But always we will move closer when we allow ourselves to evaporate into full compassion and feel the anguish of the world. This nourishes and refines our sense of calling. We strive to have compassion in action.

It is always about balance, isn’t it? Breathing in and breathing out, drawing in and reaching out; balance is the key. Having a conscience takes its toll. There is great need: poverty, racism, corporate greed, immigration, climate change, and more. So much of it is truly worthy of our passion and energy. Tie your activist passion back to your own spiritual longing and remain open to the cries of heartache around you. Those who develop an even give and take will go farther and cause greater impact both within themselves and in the world around them.

In another one of her pieces, “Mysticism Matters” she says:

I yearn to practice
a mysticism that meets,
moves, mobilizes a piece
of the mundane world.
I hunger to use my gifts
of poetry and practicality,
of language and law to engage
part of the aching world.

What are your gifts? What part of the aching world do you recognize?

In several of her poems, Sr. Campbell speaks of being righteous. “Righteousness” is a common word in the bible. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Being righteous is not about being right or correct. It is not about being better than others. Those definitions drift closer to ‘self-righteous’ rather than ‘righteous. ‘Righteous’ is perhaps best translated as “Right-relatedness.” To be righteous is to be in “right-relation.” It is about relationships, about how we are with other people. This is what the Nuns on the Bus are talking about – any budget, any program, and legislation needs to be about the people, not the ideas or ideologies or ‘how it is supposed to be.’

I remember a colleague who expressed dismay over a justice project going on in his congregation. Following the model of Habitat for Humanity, they were renovating a house for a family out in the community. The trouble my colleague experienced was focused on the project manager. The project manager was getting very frustrated with the rest of the congregation because he couldn’t find regular skilled volunteers for the job and he was doing far more work than he had signed up to do. The project manager was getting grumpy and indignant about the whole affair. There were always plenty of volunteers, just not the sort that this project manager wanted.

The minister finally pulled the manager aside and asked him, “What are we doing here? What is this project all about?” The manager replied, “We’re renovating houses, of course.” “No,” my colleague shot back. “If we are trying to renovate houses we should get out of the business now. We lack the proper skills, the proper funding, the proper commitment of time, the proper organizational structure and even the proper tools! We are the last organization who should be trying to renovate houses. But that’s not what we’re doing. This project is about transforming lives. We are transforming the lives of the people who will eventually move back into this house; but more, we are transforming your life and my life and the lives of all of us working on this project! We are not renovating houses, we are transforming lives.”

Don’t get lost in one or the other. We’re after both personal and social transformation; to nourish your soul and help heal the world. That is why we are here: to become better people and to make the world a better place. The two goals blend well together if you let them. The secret is to let the world in, to feel the heartache and know you participate in the sorrow and the solution.

One stanza of her poem “Incarnation” strikes to the heart of all this I am trying to talk about. She wrote this poem “Incarnation” while in Iraq before the second gulf war in 2002, just ahead of Christmas.

Let compassion be our hands,
reaching to be with each other, all others
to touch, to hold heal this fractured world.

In a world without end
May it be so.