By Jo Piazza / current.com / @jopiazza
The first thing you should know about the nun bus is that it has fantastic air conditioning.
Twelve nuns are going on a road trip across half the continent fighting against a House-approved federal budget and thumbing their noses at the Vatican — but everywhere they go people are anxious to ask them about their air-conditioning situation.
It's good, that air conditioning, strong and usually around 68 degrees.
A digital thermometer at a suburban shopping center in Newtown, Pa., hit 103 degrees on Friday afternoon as the sky-blue bus with bold, red writing pulled into the parking lot. The crowd of nearly 100 supporters was sweaty on the black asphalt. When the nuns, emerged they were cool as cucumbers.
They’re cool, generally, this group of Catholic sisters traveling across the country to raise awareness of the social issues they have long championed and to fight against conservative Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget.
If you didn’t know better, you might think this was a tour bus carrying a boy band. That’s how wild the crowd of mostly older ladies in Dockers and sun hats becomes with its chanting, screaming and impromptu fight songs.
The Nuns on the Bus, they feed the poor, feed the poor, feed the poor; the Nuns on the Bus, they feed the poor through the United States.
The crowd added extra syllables to "through" so that it sounded like "thooo-ooo-roo."
The Nuns on the Bus say reject Ryan’s budget, reject Ryan’s budget, reject Ryan’s budget; the Nuns on the Bus say reject Ryan’s budget through the United States.
The Nuns on the Bus say we are mad, we are mad, we are mad; the Nuns on the Bus say we are mad ...
It goes on, but you get the point. We caught up with the Nuns on the Bus in Newtown, which was one of the final stops on their nine-state tour. On Saturday, the sisters will be in Maryland, on Sunday, Virginia; and on Monday they will conclude the tour in Washington, D.C.
The purpose of the trip, which began on June 18 in Iowa, is twofold. It is a response to the Vatican’s recent critique of the American nuns as too outspoken on issues of social justice (and not outspoken enough against things like gay rights and abortion). To that end, this tour feels like the nuns' way of retorting, "You think we were outspoken before, now we’ve got a bus."
But this is also a chance for the sisters to protest proposed federal budget cuts to programs for the poor and for working families, particularly in a federal budget approved by the House of Representatives that was proposed by Ryan, who claimed he based the budget on his Catholic faith.
Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK and the mastermind behind the Nuns on the Bus, is the Bono of this tour. People want to touch her, take their picture with her and tell her their personal stories. And, like a politician, she has a very practiced stump speech about the sisters’ mission on this tour.
"We have to find ways to break out of our boxes to solve our problems," Campbell said from a podium that they bring along on the bus. "The polarization is killing us."
"We have five words: Reasonable revenue for responsible programs!” Campbell told the crowd. "I told this to the congressmen. If they say it three times, they’ll remember it. I heard if you say it seven times, you will actually believe it."
Some in the crowd had heard the speech before. They brought signs bearing the five key words. Sister Campbell called them the "advanced class."
The sisters spend long stretches on the bus — three hours here and five hours there, which could be tiring for women creeping past their 50s — but after each stop they seem reinvigorated by the excitement of the crowds.
Inside, the bus does look like something a pop band might use for travel, with a flat-screen television, wireless Internet and plenty of snacks. There are stacked sleeping pods in the vehicle’s center where the women take naps, though they often sleep at their orders’ mother houses. There is a banquet-style couch in the back where they can lounge and work on their computers, which they say they are on almost all the time when the Internet is working.
In all, 12 women will rotate on and off the bus during the trip.
"Not by plan or design, the number just happens to be 12. We noticed that the other day and we were like, 'Wow!'" said Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, referring to the fact that Jesus acquired 12 apostles while preaching the gospel.
It is hard not to think about the apostles on the bus. These women are sharing a modern-day gospel of how to care for the less fortunate and how to do it in a fiscally responsible way. They’re so psyched about it that it isn’t at all inaccurate to describe them as being as giddy as schoolgirls when they talk about their mission.
Lacy throws up her hands a lot when she talks.
"People are just dying to say, 'Reasonable revenue for responsible programs!' We pay gas, but it is the Holy Spirit that is propelling this bus," she told me. "It’s like, 'Woo hoo, GO GOD!!!'"
Sister Diane Donaghue is 81 years old. She flew in from Los Angeles and has been on the bus every single day since Iowa. She says that because most sisters no longer wear habits, the bus has given them a new way of branding themselves to the public.
"This bus is the medium for the message. We walk down the street without the bus and no one pays attention to us, but the minute we roll into a stop and get off the bus, it is terrific. People trust us. We have credibility. We have integrity. And we are given an open field to say how we are, who we are and where we are. It doesn’t mean people agree with us all the time, but we have an opportunity to speak an important message," said Donaghue, who refers to herself as the senior member of the said.
All the women agree that the Holy Spirit has been with them on the trip.
"The Holy Spirit, she is with us,” Sister Diane Guerin of Philadelphia said. When I asked whether the Holy Spirit was a woman, the women smiled knowingly.
It may take the touch of a woman and some help from the divine to accomplish what these women want to do — change the minds of a group largely composed of men who are hell-bent on diverting funds away from the social safety net.
"One of our plans is to break the heart of Congress. What they need is a broken heart so they weep for our nation," Simone Campbell told me. "We, as a nation, all need to have a heart for each other."
(Photo by Jo Piazza)