Nuns, poverty and intersection of women’s leadership

“Now, for the first time in two years, their Nuns on the Bus program takes their tour on the road, including a stop here in Detroit, Oct. 20 to protest yet another federal policy they believe further marginalizes the poor.” 

 

By Tina M. Patterson

“As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich, even if he has a billion dollars.” -MLK

While many remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most notable religious leader of the civil rights era for his dream of equality, many more forget his primary tactics as an agitator for equality. He did not passively advocate for change or back away from using the power of the church to influence political leaders. In fact, he did not shy away from what he believed was a moral responsibility to hold these leaders accountable.

As an example, King called out the stagnant and hypocritical leadership of Congress in the push for civil rights for African Americans. He specifically stated that both Democrats and Republicans had betrayed American ideals by “capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic process of southern Dixiecrats” and “to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing, reactionary northerners.” His unrelenting push for equality led to two successful sweeping legislations: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Both monumental and historic legislations were signed into law by former President Lyndon Johnson, who championed the Great Society program to confront poverty.

Perhaps not since the civil rights era, has there been a political leader like Johnson, who stepped forward with a plan to tackle the poverty epidemic in this country. On the contrary, current President Donald Trump administration has introduced policies that many argue would further alienate the impoverished, such as repealing Medicaid expansion to low income families, and decreasing funding from social welfare programs.

Despite the persistent attacks on the poor and marginalized and their cries for help often drowned in a 24-hour religious and political conservative echo chamber, there is an ever present need to respond rightly to the challenges of the time and to give the poor a voice. And NETWORK, a progressive Catholic organization founded by Catholic Sisters in the progressive spirit of Vatican II, is answering that call. The group has taken up the mantle for a bold and divergent approach to sociopolitical issues that plague our nation.

Led by executive director Sister Simone Campbell, who is also a National Panel Advisory Member of The PuLSE Institute, NETWORK, is rooted in Catholic social justice teachings. From marching and praying for an end to immigrant detentionsto supporting gay rights through their “coming out and Catholic” initiative, NETWORK works to create a society that promotes justice and the dignity of all in the shared abundance of God’s creation.

Most significantly, NETWORK has championed the issue of poverty, proudly declaring that they work to change structures that cause poverty and inequality, placing the needs of people at the economic margins at the center of their advocacy.

Now, for the first time in two years, their Nuns on the Bus program takes their tour on the road, including a stop here in Detroit, Oct. 20 to protest yet another federal policy they believe further marginalizes the poor. Specifically, the Nuns are protesting the 2017 tax law passed by Republicans in Congress, who Nuns say were hard at work to enact a tax law that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy over working people. According to the Nuns, “this new law gives 83% of the benefits to the wealthiest 1% and threatens funding for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.”

It is unquestionably refreshing to witness religious leaders willing to challenge politicians for their failure to address the scourge of poverty. However, one only needs to look to history to make the case that this challenge is also the responsibility of the faith community as well. They have a role to play in the fight for economic justice. In fact, King, noting that “the inseparable twin of racial justice was economic justice” took this message to the streets in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his tragic assassination. That campaign, which was coordinated and administered by Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a top King staff and a member of The PuLSE Institute’s National Advisory Panel, became the watershed moment of the civil rights movement.

In modern times, one can reference the ongoing work of the Rev. William Barber and his Moral Mondays campaign for preaching a Gospel of liberation that condemns racial and economic injustice.

Yet while we rightfully celebrate the work of Dr. King and Rev. Barber, what uniquely distinguishes the Nuns on Bus is their prominent status and history as women and progressive leaders in the seemingly largely conservative Catholic Church. That has had a larger impact on many people including myself. For example, growing up as a little black girl in the Catholic Church in Detroit, it was rare to find not just a black woman, but any woman in a leading role in the church. As I grew older, I realized the reason is because women are in fact limited in their ability to ascend the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy.

This is what makes Nuns on the Bus so rare and indispensable, which is demonstrated through the leadership of Sister Campbell. She daringly calls out instances of voter suppression, prominently advocates for tax justice and health care for all, and boldly encourages increased women leadership in the church.

In the age of extreme policies that favor the wealthy, along with the heightened awareness of the “Me Too” movement, Sister Campbell and the Nuns simultaneously combine the need for courageous religious leadership to challenge regressive politics that adversely affect the poor. In doing so they are also exhibiting their strength and leadership as women to be a voice for change within the Catholic Church and around the nation.

When uplifting the cause of the needy and impoverished, the church need look no further than Jesus, who declared, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40).

The Nuns echo this message, audaciously declaring “it’s clear who the GOP’s tax law was written for—and it is not the men, women, and children whom Jesus championed. NOW is the moment to come together and tell the GOP no more tax breaks at the expense of working people, middle-class families, small businesses, and our economy.”

 

In this period of a dangerous wealth gap and increasing abject levels of poverty, a bold declaration to fight poverty is not only politically essential, but a moral imperative.

Tina M. Patterson is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, an independent non-partisan anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit. for more information on the Nuns on the Bus Tax Justice Tour visit www.nunsonthebus.org

 

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