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Sister Simone Campbell addresses sold-out crowd at Pacific University

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: SCOTT SCHLEGEL - Sister Simone Campbell told a sold-out audience at Pacific University that authentic faith involves a desire to change the world and make it better.Tickets to see Sister Simone Campbell, the only American Catholic nun with rock-star status, sold out at the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center in Forest Grove Monday night.

Sister Simone is an attorney and poet who has appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. She spoke to a local crowd of more than 350.

Pacific’s Center for Peace and Spirituality invited Campbell, author of “A Nun on the Bus,” to talk about her work and what she’s learned about the role religious faith can have in promoting public policy that “advances the common good.”

Campbell gained attention in 2010 when her Washington, D.C.-based organization, Network, wrote the “Nuns’ Letter to Congress” signed by 59 Catholic Sisters in support of health care reform during a contentious national debate. The Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, was opposed by Catholic bishops, but passed with help from Campbell and Network’s outreach.

“Religion got used for some very partisan political gain,” Campbell said Monday. “That’s been one of the pieces that’s been worrying me about our nation.

“My reading of most faiths is that we’re all about inclusion and bringing people in,” she added, referring to businesses that use religion to discriminate against customers.

Campbell quoted Pope Francis’ exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel,” saying, “An authentic faith, which is never comfortable or completely personal, always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.”

The Pope’s statement, she said, means members of faith communities are called to work toward eliminating the “structural causes of poverty” and “meeting the needs we encounter.”

“It is not either charity or justice — it’s both,” Campbell said, “It is that hunger to change the structural causes of poverty and inaction in our society that is making me almost want to weep, because I work in Washington, D.C., where paralysis and political game is more important than actually solving the problems of our time.” Sister Simone Campbell signs copies of A Nun on the Bus after her talk at Pacific University. The nuns 2,700-mile bus tour tried to draw attention to poverty and crossed nine states. According to some accounts, Tea Party activists picketed the bus with signs reading, Bums on the Bus, and Romney-Ryan Yes, Fake Nuns No. 

In 2012, Campbell organized a nine-state bus tour to speak out against a proposed federal budget favored by Tea Party leaders and religious conservatives that the Catholic Sisters believed would have hurt low-income families, children and the elderly.

Campbell said she’s now reaching out to people across America because “leadership will come from here, not D.C.” She said it will take pressure from all over the country and the world to get Congress to “actually engage the challenging work of talking about the real issues of our time.”

Campbell calls herself “a Sister of social service.” She said she cared passionately about civil rights as a youth growing up in California. “I saw that for me, Jesus and justice ... went together. For me you cannot separate the gospel stories from the quest for justice.”

Campbell referred to “the schizophrenia in our nation right now, where we deny reality because we refuse for political reasons to fix our problems.”

She evoked laughter and applause when she talked about the Nuns’ Letter to Congress and its influence during the affordable health care debate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the act, Campbell said, because they believed it included funding for abortion. She said several federal court rulings have since affirmed the act does not fund abortions, but the bishops attempted to “penalize the sisters who’d signed the letter” anyway.

After a bishop in Nebraska punished a group of Sisters by denying them use of church property for a meeting, one Sister told Campbell, “Oh, Simone, don’t worry about it. The girls played the boys and for once the girls won.”

Campbell said the Vatican (under a previous pope) labeled her organization “a bad influence on Catholic Sisters because we worked too much with the poor and we promoted radical feminist themes incompatible with the Gospel.” Admitting she was “pretty rabid as a feminist” when she attended law school, Campbell said “that was a long time ago and I’ve changed a lot.”

She called working with the poor “a badge of honor because that’s our mission.”

Media attention had the effect of “lifting up Catholic Sisters” and sparked the Nuns on the Bus tour, Campbell said. “So I say, ‘It’s all thanks to the Vatican!’”

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