Interview: Sister Simone Campbell

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, is the Executive Director of NETWORK, which was founded by 47 Catholic Sisters from different communities in 1971, to educate and lobby for economic and social transformation. She also leads Nuns on the Bus, a campaign of Sisters that have had four tours of different parts of America raising awareness about poverty and inequality.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
I’m a Catholic Sister who cares passionately about Gospel living in the midst of society. My work then becomes trying to build a society where the best of each person can flourish. It’s a communal approach to individual realization. But I believe that individuals can only grow when society – the 100% – are working together at this.

What does justice mean to you?
Where everyone can live in dignity and all care for creation.

How do you handle the things that scare you?
Walk towards them. That’s the only way. Because fear is just my insecurity or my apprehension about the unknown or something that I don’t want to acknowledge. My experience is that if you walk towards fear then it dissipates. It’s when we get curled up and keep obsessing about the fear that it’s crippling.

Are there ways to be comfortable in our vulnerability?
What we have to do is come to be at ease with our limitations and the fact that we are not in control. One of our big challenges in our nation is that we have this idea that we should always be secure.

[But] the very nature of human species is that we’re insecure. Our effort to deny that is what generates fear, anger, divisions, [a] sense of entitlement. So acknowledging the reality of our insecurity is the way to be at ease with limitations. It actually is quite freeing if I am not responsible for everything…just for my part.

The reality is that we’re vulnerable, there are no guarantees. But it’s also the reality that in this very vulnerability and unpredictability, we’re best as community. Because we need each other and together in community we can know our fullness of potential

Are there things you forget in life that you wish you could remember more?
That we’re all a part of the whole, and that the folks I disagree with politically are part of the whole, too. There are people I want to vote off the island. But it’s actually that we all have a part to play in the bigger picture. No one is a mistake of God even if I disagree with them. I need to be open to all of the difference.

How do you deal with indifference?
I think that’s just a big blanket of fear. People say, “Oh, that’s too much for me. I can’t do it.” Well, that’s just hiding. We’re all called to do our part. But the hard part is seeing what our part is. What I try to do is hear people’s stories and tell stories. That creates connections [and] a sense of urgency.

For instance, the horrors of racism in our country. In September, I met with this group Mothers 2 Mothers in St. Louis. When I hear these brave African-American moms talking about their worry for their sons, it’s frightening what they worry about and how they worry in a way that no white mom really needs to worry.

This one mom, Amy, has a 10th grader and an 8th grader, [both] boys. She quizzes them on what to do when they’re stopped by the police. It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ [She tells her sons], “Keep your hands out of your pockets, keep your arms away from your body, say, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’ and don’t get any teenage attitude.” Her 8th grader said to her, “How long is this going to go on?” And she had to say for the rest of his life.

I’m totally committed to trying to give Amy’s son a different answer. We who walk around in white skin have a responsibility to make change. I think when your heart’s broken open by the stories of others, you cannot stand on the sidelines.

What do you think makes sticktuitiveness possible?
Continuous heartbreak. What’s the alternative? That you bail on people you love? We hide from pain. It’s part of our culture that we shouldn’t have pain. That’s just nutty.

Heartbreak really is so your heart’s broken open and then you’ve got room for more people in your life. That’s why I describe my spirituality as walking willing. Walking towards trouble, walking towards stuff that’s hard. Because in that process, my heart’s broken open and there’s room for more.

In what way is joy important to the human experience?
Oh my gosh, it’s at the heart of it! The irony is that when your heart’s broken open, it releases hope and joy into the world. The story of Amy breaks my heart. But because I can say the truth of it, that liberates joy and hope. As long as I hide from that reality, then I’m stifling both.

Also, the income and wealth disparity in our nation has separated us from each other. That’s a lot of what’s generating the fear among us that reduces joy.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?
Being adult is quite like being a kid once you’ve got being an adult mastered. At the core is wonder, awe and joy—in other words being child-like.

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