The socially-conscious Nuns on the Bus tour, which gained national attention during the 2012 presidential election, rolled through Illinois last week as part of a 13-state schedule that will include stops at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Their theme this year is "Mend the Gaps: Reweave the Fabric of Society." The nine sisters on board said they hope to draw attention to the growing gap between rich and poor, among other social justice issues.
"We are on the road in response to the divisive rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle and as an answer to Pope Francis's call that a healthy politics is sorely needed," said Sister Simone Campbell.
Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, is an originator of the Nuns on the Bus tours. She also is an attorney and executive director of Network, a Washington, D.C., justice advocacy group.
The nuns' living quarters for the next two weeks will be a bus that is more like a large recreational vehicle. There are swivel chairs along the sides of the interior, a small kitchen area to keep snacks and brew coffee, a small conference area in the back, and a big screen TV -- which the nuns said they don't have time to watch.
The day starts with community prayer. Between stops, Campbell said, "Sometimes we are on the Internet, checking email Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes we just tell stories."
This year's tour had an official kickoff rally at Fourth Ward Park in Janesville on July 12 before heading south through Illinois. The sisters stopped for lunch at the Peru Pizza House, which they described as an independently owned restaurant with "family friendly" policies.
They said they want to highlight family-friendly workplaces on their tour while also advocating for a living wage, access to health care for all, affordable housing, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Speaking of growing divide between rich and poor, Campbell said, "We studied how did we get in this mess? And we discovered at Network that it was policies -- conscious policies choices made in the late seventies, early eighties -- that resulted in this huge wealth and income disparity. And we realized, if policies created the gaps, then policies can change the gaps."
During their stop Tuesday in Bloomington-Normal, the sisters visited a children's day camp at the YWCA of McLean County and met with immigrants, immigration workers and health care advocates.
In the evening, the sisters discussed tax reform, immigration policy, health care, housing needs and other issues at a "caucus" held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bloomington. About 90 members of the community attended and were invited to express their views. The multi-state tour looped into Missouri before heading back east.
In an extended interview with Illinois Public Radio, Campbell said the nuns did not hold a program at a local Catholic parish because they wanted to stress the inter-faith nature of their message.
The sisters plan to press their reform agenda by speaking with delegates and elected officials at both the Republic and Democratic conventions. They will be holding an all-day "RNC Delegate Dialogue" and a prayer service during the Republican Convention in Cleveland this week and a three-day workshop and caucus at the Democratic Convention.
Campbell described the nuns as "Pope Francis voters" who aim to be "equal opportunity annoyers" of both political parties.
"I'll annoy the Democrats and I'll annoy the Republicans to care for those who we advocate for," she said.
Campbell was invited to speak at the 2012 Democratic Convention. As a sister whose order specializes in social services, she brought a unique moral voice to the political proceedings.
She said she has no plans to speak at either of the conventions this year, but she will do so if invited. She said there is room for improvement in both parties' platforms when it comes to improving the lives of the poor and marginalized.
The sisters come from all parts of the country and represent numerous women's religious orders including Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Social Service, Dominicans, Sisters of St. Joseph, Ursulines, Franciscans, Sisters of Notre Dame, the Comboni Missionary Sisters, Presentation sisters, Daughters of Charity, Sisters of the Holy Family, and Sisters of St. Agnes.
In a far-ranging interview, Campbell spoke about the racial tensions sweeping the country and what voters they meet are telling the sisters. The nuns on the bus include five attorneys, a psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, several educators, and pastoral care and social service workers.
The Nuns on the Bus tour is being financed through private donations.