Sr. Simone Campbell expresses humility, humor and commitment to peace
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Sister Simone Campbell listened to a litany honoring the previous 43 recipients of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. Then she listened as Bishop Martin Amos affirmed her commitment to faith, family and fairness before presenting her with the award Sept. 21 in Christ the King Chapel at St. Ambrose University, Davenport. Deeply touched, the leader of Nuns on the Bus thought she might cry.
“I am so moved, so humbled to be in this place. The Holy Spirit has a very large sense of humor that a California troublemaker could get included (in this award),” the executive director of NETWORK, a nonprofit Catholic social justice lobby, said. “I know it’s not about us individually, but about all of us together. And isn’t that what peace is all about? Where there’s room for everyone at the table?”
Sr. Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Services, has become famous for the Nuns on the Bus tours which advocate for social justice. This year’s 10-state tour focuses on getting out the vote for the mid-term elections. It began Sept. 17 in Des Moines and rolled into Davenport on Sept. 20 for a voter registration effort, an Iowa gubernatorial debate party, and the award ceremony the following day.
The award was created in 1964 by the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council in honor of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). Quad City Pacem in Terris Coalition, an interfaith group, has presented the award since 1978.
Nuns on the Bus, which includeds Sisters from various religious communities around the country, made the first road trip in 2012, focusing on a fair federal budget that wouldn’t deprive people living in poverty. The second trip, in 2013, focused on immigration reform.
The 68-year-old nun admitted to her audience of 450, one of the largest crowds for the award in recent history, she’s tempted to leave some people away from the table, mentioning a few U.S. Congressmen. But she also shared with the audience an eight-day contemplative retreat experience in which her retreat director pushed her to deal with what he called “radical acceptance.”
Through prayer and reflection, she realized a need to accept even those individuals she’d rather “vote off the island.” “If I was at odds with the God in them; I’m at odds with the God in me,” she reasoned. Radical acceptance is about “having a heart that is open to the whole.”
Pleased with her heightened awareness, she thought she could enjoy being holy for the rest of the retreat, she said, tongue in cheek. Then her retreat director challenged her to re-evaluate her concept of “fighting.” Yes, she had “fought” for people who’d been left behind, on the margins.
But, now she had to contemplate building peace with the opposition. Building peace is “not about pushing back against this force that I want to eliminate. Because, if you push back against a force, you reinforce it and you get stuck pushing on both sides, and there’s no peace in that.”
“So what I discovered was, if you fight for a vision you can stand side by side and look to the future … fighting for means that we all need to aspire to this ‘something else.’ It’s about radically accepting all of these beloved people, some who are easier to accept than others. But it’s also fighting for a vision of (what) we see ourselves called to be.”
An image came to mind during her retreat, that of “God flaming up in our lives,” the burning bush. “It really is about all of us being called to be the burning bush in our time, where God says, ‘I have heard the cry of my people.’ He goes on to say, ‘and I have come to rescue them.’ Our people are crying. Our people are hungry. Our people are starved. Our people need hope. And the amazing thing about the bus trip …. it has become like a burning bush; it has become a magnet for people to come and sign our bus and commit to be voters and making a difference and speaking out and knowing we’re in this together because hope is a communal virtue … Hope is about coming together to be the 100 percent … Hope is that virtue that makes peace possible.…”
She cited Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Gospel,” and gave a nod to Bishop Amos for referring to the document in his homily at Mass that morning in the Congregation of the Humility of Mary chapel in Davenport. Like St. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, “Pacem in Terris,” Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” speaks from the heart, she said. She listed four things that Pope Francis said build peace:
1). Time is bigger than space. “If we’re busy defending our turf, we’ll never build peace,” Sr. Campbell said. “But if we’re in a process of conversation that invites everyone in … then we can build peace.”
2). Unity prevails over conflict. She notes that the pope says “we all hunger to be connected, to be one.”
3). Reality is more important than theories. “He goes on to say you need to hear the stories of each person,” says Sr. Campbell, a storyteller who loves to hear other people’s stories and share them. She told the story of a family of six, struggling to make ends meet because the parents are unable to find full-time jobs. Another story focused on “Robin,” working full-time, but earning minimum wage and having to live in a homeless shelter because she can’t afford rent.
These stories “are the root of peace building because stories break hearts, and if your heart is broken open, then I have learned that radical acceptance is possible because you have room for everyone’s stories in your heart …. Having a broken heart, I think, might be the first step to peace building.”
4). The whole is greater than its parts. “If you are missing any parts, you can’t make peace because you don’t have that perspective present,” Sr. Campbell says. “So, if we’re looking at the Middle East, we need to have everyone involved. If we’re looking at Ferguson and the issues in our cities, we have to have everyone in. If we’re looking at polarized politics, we have to have everyone in. If we’re looking at any of the things that tear us apart, we have to make room for everyone at the table … Have you ever done a jigsaw puzzle and found that one pesky piece was missing? Isn’t it annoying? Peace building is like that. If we have one piece missing we have not seen the whole,” she observed.
This nun does politics by riding a bus, but what fuels her is faith. “The spirit of God and the story of Jesus keep me nourished for every step of the way. On the bus we get together for a half-hour every morning to pray before we get out. It is faith that opens our hearts, opens our eyes, keeps us alert, keeps us welcoming and sensitive to the stories around us.”
Peace activist Chuck Quilty of Moline, Ill., who got to know Sr. Campbell when both were on a peace mission in Iraq some years ago, praised her award speech. “Her wisdom comes through not just in what she says, but what she does.”
Imam H. Saad Baig, director of the Islamic Center of the Quad Cities in Moline, especially appreciated the stories of real people that Sr. Campbell shared in delivering a message of peace and hope. In his prayer, which opened the ceremony, he observed that “the more we sweat in making peace, the less we’ll bleed in war.” Peace is hard work, the imam said, but it leads to great results.
Melinda Smith-Pace of Bettendorf said Sr. Campbell’s talk “is the heart of what needs to be done in the world.”