Sister Simone Campbell

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The religious leader, attorney and author talks about her work advocating economic justice and immigration reform and her memoir, A Nun on the Bus.

A religious leader and attorney, Sister Simone Campbell has extensive experience in public policy and advocacy for systemic change. She's the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby, NETWORK, and wrote the famous "nuns' letter" supporting the healthcare reform bill. She was also instrumental in organizing two "Nuns on the Bus" tours—one opposing the Ryan budget; the other on immigration reform. She was previously general director of her religious community, the Sisters of Social Service, and founded (and was lead attorney for 18 years of) a community law center serving the working poor in Oakland, CA. Campbell's efforts are chronicled in the memoir, A Nun on the Bus.


Tavis: Sister Simone Campbell joined the Sisters of Social Service, the Roman Catholic religious community in the mid-60s and has been a tireless advocate for social justice ever since. As an attorney and author, Sister Simone has made it her mission to work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Her latest text is called “A Nun on the Bus” which chronicles efforts by herself and her fellow Sisters to speak truth to power. Sister Simone, I am honored to have you on this program.

Sister Simone Campbell: Oh, it’s great to be with you.

Tavis: Let me start – because I learned something – and maybe I’m showing my own ignorance here. I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, not the Catholic Church. But I did not know until your text the technical distinction between a Sister and a Nun.

Campbell: Right, and most people don’t. A nun is someone who is usually in a cloistered community, is enclosed, takes public solemn vows which is all technical. And most of us who are in active communities like the teachers, social workers, those kinds of folks, we’re sisters.

It’s a less restrictive life and it is more engaged with service to people, taking the gospel to where it wouldn’t be otherwise. And nuns are enclosed in contemplative, prayerful, enclosed settings.

Tavis: Did that make it – trying to find the right word here. Did that make it then easier, more likely, or am I missing something here about the pushback that you ultimately receive from the Vatican, given that you are sisters and not nuns?

Campbell: Well, I think that some of the misunderstanding by the Vatican, most of the folks who are criticizing us in the Vatican are not members of religious communities. Obviously, none of them are Catholic sisters, so they really don’t know what we’re about.

They think we ought to be more contained, more closed, more limited in where we take the gospel. And they’ve missed the whole point of what we’ve been about for the last 50 years of renewal. It’s about living our carism in the streets where the people are, taking the gospel to the streets.

Tavis: You unpacked this in the text for those who remember hearing something about this, but don’t recall the details. Set the stage for me what you all were doing that got the ire of some inside the Vatican.

Campbell: That got us in trouble [laugh].

Tavis: That got you in trouble, yeah [laugh].

Campbell: The thing that I think was the tripwire for this was our position on the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the fact that our sisters had been working across the United States in service, in places, you know, for decades, actually centuries. But what we did with the Affordable Care Act was to stand in favor of it and support its passage at the same time that our Bishops stood in opposition to it.

And the fact is that we knew there was no federal funding of abortion in the Affordable Care Act and our Bishops were told by their staff that there was. So they felt they had to oppose it even though they were given wrong information. I’d read the bill. I knew what was in it. I knew what it said, so I felt perfectly comfortable supporting it.

The Catholic Health Association stood for it, we stood for it, and sisters around the country signed a letter I wrote saying that they supported it as a way forward. It became the tipping point that allowed the Affordable Care Act to pass. Now the Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but it’s way better than anything that we had, so it’s a good step forward.

Tavis: So how then did this idea to get on the bus – because when you sister, you nuns, got on the bus, I mean, I was pleased. I’ve done these poverty tours, as you know, before in my own work.

Campbell: Exactly, exactly.

Tavis: But I was just so pleased at the response and the media attention that your…

Campbell: Wasn’t it amazing? Oh, my gosh, it was huge.

Tavis: Everybody was covering this bus tour you all were on.

Campbell: I know, I know. It was so amazing. But here’s the thing. It came because we had been censured by the Vatican and my prayer was how do we use this moment for mission? Because very quickly, I got tired of talking about sisters, what it means to be a sister, because we’re not about having the spotlight on ourselves, but how do we use this moment for mission?

And what came to me in prayer is to ask for help, that we had too small of an imagination to solve this problem. So we invited colleagues in D.C. to come together on May 14 at our office and no one remembers who first said road trip.

But by the end of an hour and a half meeting, we were going on the road. We were pushing back against the Paul Ryan budget. We were lifting up the works of our sisters and we were going in a rapped bus. I had no idea what a rapped bus was.

Tavis: A rapped bus [laugh].

Campbell: I thought it might be some kind of music or something. I didn’t know [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, a rapped bus. No, that’s w-r-a-p, not an r-a-p [laugh].

Campbell: Exactly [laugh].

Tavis: Since you mentioned two or three things I want to go back and get right quick, one of them is Paul Ryan…

Campbell: Sure.

Tavis: Which is always fascinating for me because you are Catholic, Paul Ryan is Catholic, the head of the budget committee.

Campbell: Exactly.

Tavis: Give me some sense of your relationship, you know, tension-filled? Tensionless?

Campbell: Well, we’re both interested in each other. And I had a meeting with him about two weeks ago and he is really concerned about poverty. Our new pope is challenging him because he is a faithful Catholic.

But he’s still using just free market analysis. The market can take care of it. But what is abundantly clear is, if the market could take care of it, it’d be taken care of. The fact is, that’s not sufficient.

So I was pushing him a bit to consider other alternatives, that government has to create good policies. So we had a nice 15-minute meeting. Those meetings just go in 15-minute increments, but we had a good 15-minute meeting. We agreed that poverty was an issue. We disagreed on what to do about it.

But then at the end, I could talk to him about immigration reform and we both agreed that is something that needs to be accomplished. And he’s working in his own way to try to make that a reality in the House of Representatives.

So there’s agreement and disagreement, but it’s substantive. I mean, as a person, I think both he and I would say we try to work together.

Tavis: What work are you attempting to accomplish now, specifically with regard to immigration reform? I know it’s a priority for you and I know it’s a priority for the Catholic Church.

Campbell: Absolutely.

Tavis: In part, because your parishioners, there’s so…

Campbell: Self-interest [laugh].

Tavis: Well, yeah. I was trying to be generous about it, trying to be charitable [laugh].

Campbell: Oh, I’ll just cut to the chase here [laugh].

Tavis: Cut to the chase then. You always do. Please go ahead, yeah.

Campbell: Well, we do care about immigration reform. But it’s because the people in our society, most of those who have overstayed their visas, are contributing to our society and we should include them, bring them out from the shadows. That’s just wrong. But what we know is our economy would grow, is that we would have better communities, that we the people would be a better nation to do this.

And we need to fix our system for going forward ’cause we’re in this predicament ’cause we have really a 20th century immigration policy when we’re in the 21st century. We need a new policy. There’s basic agreement about how to have that happen. What we need to do is shake something loose out of the House of Representatives.

In the House of Representatives right now, there’s basically three parties. There’s the Democrats and the Republicans and then there’s the Tea Party. And poor Speaker Boehner is trying to be the head of two parties at one time and they’re diametrically opposed. So what we have to do is get beyond the fear factor. I keep saying to them, “Fear not, fear not. Do the right thing. Have the courage to do the right thing.”

And the fact is is that real Republicans, not fearful, frightened Republicans and not Tea Party people, but real Republicans who are business Republicans know we need it. So we’ve got a commitment on their part that we needed. We just have to make it happen politically.

Tavis: I’m curious as to how one goes about the business of having meaningful conversation with one who you share your fundamental core Christian beliefs with, but disagree with politically. I mean, when you and Paul Ryan – I want to go back to this ’cause I don’t want to jump too fast on this.

When the two of you get together, I mean, you do come from the same spiritual place and you’re both good Catholics, but when the politics get involved, how do you come out of those conversations with any sort of good use of time?

Campbell: Well, what I try to do is to connect the conversation to the stories of real people. Because it’s when we get in our academic, theoretical heads that we can argue forever and he pointed that out, that we could have this argument forever.

But what I talk about, specific folks like Robin who’s working fulltime at minimum wage, but having to live in a homeless shelter ’cause she doesn’t make enough money to pay rent in the D.C. area. I mean, that’s just basically wrong in the richest nation on earth.

Tavis: But don’t you think he feels that, though?

Campbell: I think I’m eroding some of the hardness of heart so that he can open himself to it. Now his answer is that we just need a market where labor is scarcer so to encourage, you know, the CEOs to pay more. But I also think we need government policies that would push that since average CEOs are now making above $10 million dollars a year.

I figured out that, in three hours, CEOs making that $10 million dollars make $3,000 an hour. And in three hours, they make as much as Robin working minimum wage does in a whole year. That’s wrong. That is wrong. So I think I’m eroding a bit the hardness of heart and helping him at least know there’s something more out there.

Tavis: How did all of this – I say all of this – all of who you are coalesced into this being? Because you are a sister, you are a lawyer, you are a lobbyist, you are an advocate. I mean, how did all this happen that ended up being Sister Simone Campbell?

Campbell: Well, I say it’s the Holy Spirit’s fault, you know. The Holy Spirit’s making mischief. I don’t know. I was always a deeply spiritual person as a kid. Gospel always mattered to me, but Jesus was always about justice.

I admired Dr. King immensely and I remember as a kid watching the kids in Birmingham, Alabama stand up against Bull Connor and being so moved by their commitment.

So this was all a part of it, but then it’s just been like gift, just gift. I describe my spirituality as just walking willing, going to the places where I’m led and letting people break my heart over and over.

But you know what happens, Tavis, when your heart – I’ve discovered when my heart’s broken, it’s like it’s broken open to have room for more people, and then hope is released. When we’re in touch with each other and hear the real stories, that’s where hope is nourished. And you can’t do it alone. I can only do it in relationship, so it’s like it’s a great gift. It’s a gift to me.

Tavis: I want to close by asking how it is that you sustain your hope? How do you sustain your hope and I think the answer might be found in the very last paragraph of this text. I wonder if I might implore you to read it for me.

Campbell: I haven’t read it with that question in mind. Let’s see.

Tavis: “It is my faith…”

Campbell: Okay.

Tavis: This is my question. How do you sustain your hope?

Campbell: “It is my faith that keeps me on this path. On the good days, the contemplative life keeps me open to all of creation and gives me the energy to share this dance with others. On the more challenging days, the contemplative life sustains me through the treasured uncertainty.

I know at all times that the spirit abides with all of us and will not leave us orphan. This is the promise that breaks hearts, releases hope and, in the process, brings joy beyond understanding. This, for me, is living the gospel in a turbulent world. This is the mission of NETWORK, my organization, and the bus.

So join us on the bus as we drive and strive for faith, family and fairness. Join us in creating community so that our democracy can survive. And join us in our fervent prayer. Come, Holy Spirit, renew the face of the earth.”

Tavis: That’s beautiful, profound. The book is called “A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change and Community,” by Sister Simone Campbell. Delighted to have had you on this program. Thank you for your time and for your insights and for your work, most importantly.

Campbell: Oh, thank you. Such an honor to be with you. Thank you.

Tavis: Delighted to have had you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm