If religion can have a rock star, it’s probably Sister Simone Campbell.
First and foremost, she’s a Catholic nun, but she’s also a lawyer, lobbyist, poet and Zen practitioner, who became the face of the Nuns on the Bus tour in 2012.
That tour came about after the Vatican censured American nuns, and by extension NETWORK, the social justice lobby of which she is executive director, pretty much handing her a miraculous marketing plan.
Soon, she found herself traveling on a bus, speaking at the Democratic National Convention and holding her own with Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”
Coming up July 10-12, she will be in New Mexico for the Conspire 2015 conference, an interfaith gathering hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation. Catholicism’s other rock star – Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who leads CAC and who recently appeared on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” – invited her to Albuquerque after meeting her in 2012.
Hearing it all
Campbell said she used to think those were separate compartments – activism and contemplation – but both serve her when she speaks on Capitol Hill or at business roundtables across the country.
“For some years, I thought contemplation was that practice of turning inward of silence, and that was where it happened,” she said from Washington, D.C. “Contemplation is all of life. That turning inward is the easy part. … But the harder part – I refer to it as deep listening – we listen deeply for the whisper of God among us.”
She’s not being mystical when she speaks about the whisper of God. It means listening to everyone, including people we don’t like to hear, like white supremacists, the ultra-rich, terrorists or politicians. “Our country needs to be for the 100 percent,” Campbell wrote in her book, “A Nun on the Bus.”
Much of that deep listening took place on the bus tour, which is being made into a documentary. Some of that listening has been with CEOs in the so-called 1 percent, because “where my heart is breaking is with the income and wealth disparity in our nation. The crying need of our time is to pull that in,” Campbell said.
Last month in Davenport, Iowa, she listened to a banker who was asked to define the core of what the business community offers. His reply: Locally based relationships of trust. “It was all about relationship,” she said. “It wasn’t about product. It wasn’t about profit.”
A deep hunger
There’s some common ground there, and that’s why she said the hunger for the 100 percent is getting stronger.
She sees that in the aftermath of Charleston, S.C., and the swift removal of the Confederate flag from public and commercial life. “As the 100 percent, we need signs and signals that bring us together, not divide us,” she said, but added that we must have compassion for those who cling to that symbol. “How do people feel loved enough to let go?”
In April, the Vatican removed the censure, powerfully affirming the roles of the Catholic sisters because of how they carry out their ministries, noting a “deep hunger” for the spiritual nourishment they provide.
When it comes to her role in the body of Christ, she’s clear about her part: She’s stomach acid.
“I’m not feet. I’m not hands,” she said. “My contribution is stomach acid.”
Not very rock star, that.
“I help nourish. I help break down food – ideas, justice, struggles – to liberate energy,” she said. “That then gives hands and feet the power to do what they need to do.”
Holding her own
It helps to be funny if the Vatican is mad at you or if you are sitting across from Colbert, who asked her if Jesus chose to be poor by being born in a manger (tinyurl.com/q8nd2z4).
“It’s been the most fun I’ve had in an interview,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the personal chemistry of keeping up with him.”
It helped that Colbert’s team prepped her with the instruction that his character is ” ‘conservative, ignorant, a curmudgeon and doesn’t want to learn anything, so push back,’ ” she said. “Because I’m a lawyer, I’m trained to push back.”
But she also trusted in what it says in the Scripture, that the words would be given.
After the censure, she began speaking about the fire of radical acceptance. “We are called to be the burning bush. Each of us is called to let God burn up our lives.”
As to whether the nuns will crank up the bus again, Campbell said she’s most focused on Catholicism’s real rock star, Pope Francis, who comes to the United States in September. She said she’s been reading his encyclical on climate change and thinking about how we must redefine success in this country as not measured by money. “Could winning be: How close can we come to being like nature, where nature wastes nothing?”