It's been reported that when Pope Francis first decided to visit the United States, he was "a little" nervous. He had, after all, never been here before, and was well aware that he had a lot to learn before embarking on his historic visit to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He's said to have opened an atlas and asked the visiting Archbishop of New York for a primer on the different regions of the country.
Though he'll be confined to the Northeast on this visit, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to learn about the Heartland and the struggles of those who live there by way of the so-called Nuns on the Bus. These intrepid — some would say radical — religious sisters tour the country, talking and listening to Americans living in the margins: families struggling to support themselves amid increasing economic inequality, while polarized political beliefs and structural racism and sexism make it seem impossible for working people to get ahead.
On September 10, the nuns kicked off their fourth national tour. The theme of this trip, "Bridge the Divides, Transform Politics," was inspired by Pope Francis and the messages of inclusion, mercy and economic justice that have fueled his worldwide popularity and earned the pontiff descriptions such as "part rock star, part diplomat and part politician."
The sisters have road-tripped across a considerable portion of the country, collecting videos of Americans speaking about the divisions they face in their lives and communities. The videos have all been loaded onto an iPad that the sisters hope to get into the pope's hands.
"We still have trouble with middle management in the Church. We do have Pope Francis, but all is not perfect," Sister Simone Campbell, the charismatic leader of the Nuns on the Bus, tells Rolling Stone. She says her mantra is to build "an economy of inclusion through a politics of inclusion."
"It means that everyone can live in dignity, that work pays," she says. "What a radical thought – that workers can care for their families on their wages, and that everyone can participate in building our society."
Sister Simone is a member of the Sisters of Social Service, a group that helped pioneer the role of religious women in addressing social concerns around the world. The sister, 69, is a practical advocate, a longtime attorney who routinely lobbies on Capitol Hill. She is also the executive director of NETWORK, the Roman Catholic social justice group that strategically lobbies and organizes for progressive social change, and which sponsors Nuns on the Bus trips.
Over the past two weeks, the sisters have traveled some 2,000 miles, hosting more than 30 events in a dozen cities across seven states. They've now arrived in Washington, D.C., where Sister Simone was one of a group of individuals invited to welcome the pope at the White House Wednesday.
When the nuns first hit the road in 2012, their mission was to collect stories of economic oppression in protest of the Paul Ryan budget — in defiant response to Pope Benedict XVI's startling decision to launch an investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents more than 80 percent of religious sisters in the United States. The investigation was an outright attack on women's role in the Church and was referred to as "a crackdown on American nuns." Their alleged transgression was spending too much time on social justice issues, and promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
NETWORK was singled out in part because it supported the Affordable Care Act, despite the protest of the bishops.
In April, Pope Francis brought the investigation to a "quiet and merciful end." Recently, during an address broadcast on ABC News, Pope Francis even expressed his admiration for nuns. "Is it unseemly for the pope to say this? I love you all very much," he said, before thanking all the sisters of religious orders in the United States.
The pope's olive branch came just days before the Nuns on the Bus launched their recent tour. Rolling Stone checked in with the sisters throughout their voyage.
Missouri (September 10-11)
To drive home the theme of "bridging the divides," the nuns launch their tour in St. Louis, Missouri.
They roll into town just ahead of GOP presidential hopefuls, who will spend the weekend addressing a crowd of Christian conservatives at the airport Marriott across town.
The sisters gather in plain view of the Gateway Arch and the courthouse where in 1847 judges ruled that Dred Scott was not a free man. (A decade later, that decision resulted in the notorious Supreme Court ruling stating no one of African ancestry could become a U.S. citizen.)
"We know that the divide of race is so iconic here in St. Louis. Whether you all know it or not, that's how the city is seen," Sister Simone tells a crowd of 70 gathered in Kiener Plaza. "We have got to start to bridge the divide of race."
They speak with women of color about their experiences raising black sons. "The tears flowed freely at the pain and agony as they talked of losing sons, grandsons and nephews to violence at the hands of police," says Sister Bernadine Karge, a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and an attorney based in Wisconsin. One woman shares a story of her young son being stopped by police on his way home from school. "The child asked his parents when that would stop. And she said to him, ‘Your whole life. This will always be a part of your experience in America.'"
The nuns say that while their on-the-ground mission is to collect stories to show the pope and lobby for working-class policy solutions such as extending the Child Tax Credit, their spiritual job while on the road is to listen, and let their hearts break open.
"I have practiced immigration law for over 30 years, so I've heard a number of heartbreaking stories," says Sister Bernadine. "But to hear different stories, just to hold it up in prayer.... What can we do about this? How can we make it a country where everyone can grow?"
After St. Louis, the sisters head west to Kansas City, where they stop at St. Anthony's, a church with a long history of serving immigrants. There, resident Mikela Houston tells the sisters about how she earns $11.25 an hour at Taco Bell. "Even though it is above the minimum wage, I'm still not able to pay my bills like I want to," she says. "Instead I rely on government assistance."
Another resident, a caregiver, tells the sisters about how she works 90 hours a week and, short of a hospital stay, never has a day off.
Kansas (September 12)
After two events in Kansas City, the nuns head to the Topeka Rescue Mission Distribution Center, where they learn the center is full.
"This is a wonderment of mine, why a government would not expand Medicaid for people who don't have it," says Sister Richelle Friedman, a policy analyst, referencing the fact that the state's governor had refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Some 60,000 working Kansans are in the so-called coverage gap in the state – they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for a subsidy to purchase insurance through state exchange. Around the country, 4.2 million Americans are without health insurance because they live in states where Republican leaders have refused to expand Medicaid.
"I really believe it's because it was one of the president's signature accomplishments," says the sister.
In Topeka, the nuns encounter protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church. A gray-haired woman holds two signs, one reading "priests rape boys," and the other, "dyke nuns." A burly man smiling behind sunglasses holds a "Christians caused fag marriage" poster.
"It was pretty amazing," says Sister Simone. "A couple of us walked over to them. We preach 'bridge the divide,' so we should practice what we preach…. I said, 'God doesn't hate,' and they said, ‘Oh yes, god does hate.'"
Arkansas (September 13-14)
Sister Simone vividly remembers watching TV news reports about the Little Rock Nine – the African-American students who in 1957, three years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. The Board of Education ruling, entered Central High School amid throngs of protesting white students and the National Guard.
"I'd never forget it, watching on black-and-white television, these kids' courage to integrate the school for the sake of a better education," Sister Simone says. "[That] was the beginning of realizing my white privilege…. I [had] just this teeny difference, this sliver of white skin, and I could go any place. It was the beginning of realizing privilege and responsibility, and it's part of the reason I became a sister, actually."
Fifty-eight years later, Sister Simone stands in front of hundreds of residents and community leaders at Little Rock's First United Methodist Church, writing "racial division" on a whiteboard — at each of their town halls, the sisters ask residents to name the divides in their community.
"What else?" she asks.
They crowd calls out hunger, homelessness, low wages, political tensions, a broken criminal justice system, executions and education inequality, which is still a problem in Little Rock; federal courts remained involved in the city's desegregation efforts until 2014.
Tennessee (September 14-17)
The sisters spend the morning in Nashville at Thistle Farms, a residency program for women who are survivors of abuse, addiction and trafficking. "[We] sat down and we began with prayer," says Sister Judith Anne Best, a School Sister of Notre Dame based in St. Louis. "We read from a book that they created that has stories of some of the women there…. We were sitting in silence, probably 25 women, looking at a candle. That was their symbol of, 'Let's keep believing in the light.'"
It's the nuns' 14th stop in seven days. After sitting with the women at Thistle Farms, Sister Judith needs a short break, so she checks out the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with Sister Eucharia Madueke, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and a policy expert who listened to Jimmy Reed while growing up in Nigeria. They're hoping for a pick-me-up.
"I talked to some of the clerks that were selling the music in the museum, and I wondered if there was any country music that was not sad," says Sister Judith. "They responded, 'It's sad because life is sad.' Then one of the women clerks said, 'Well, I think Kacey Musgraves has a few.'"
They buy Musgraves' 2013 record Same Trailer, Different Park. "[Musgraves] has a song called 'My House,' and it's about riding a bus as a rock star," says Sister Judith. "And that's exactly what we're doing."
The song goes, "So come on and hitch your wagon / to the living room I'm draggin' / If I can't bring my house / I'll bring my house to you."
"We're going to play it on the bus and sing it because we're bringing our house to your house," says Sister Judith. "That's our theme."
"Somewhere in Indiana" (September 17-18)
The sisters are road-weary. They're en route to Indianapolis, having recently left Saint Lucas United Church of Christ in Evansville.
"We had a great town meeting in Evansville," says Sister Eileen Reilly, a UN representative based in New York. "Somebody brought down a life-size, totally realistic cutout of Pope Francis, so when we walked into the church, there he was up at the front."
"So of course we all posed with him," she says.
The main issues in Evansville are affordable housing and, once again, the town's racial divide. Sister Eileen says that one gentleman observed that although 12 percent of Evansville's population is African-American, no black residents had showed up at the town hall. "[He] suggested instead of trying to figure out why [African-American residents] haven't come to us, maybe we need to go to them," says Sister Eileen. "I thought that was a great point to make."
By now, the nuns know that there are not only political, socioeconomic and racial divides in communities across the country; residents routinely cite geographic dividing lines as well – "north of Main Street," or "west of the railroad tracks."
"We spend some time trying to identify what are the divides… then we ask people, what is one thing they can do to try to bridge those divides," says Sister Eileen. "That's the hardest piece."
Washington, D.C. (September 21-23)
After 13 days on the road, the sisters are emotional as they roll into town to prepare to welcome the pope to Washington, D.C.
Some are in tears, and some are singing as they blast Kacey Musgraves' "Your House."
On Tuesday, they host a rally on the Mall, a final punctuation mark on their mission to change politics, not just policies. On Wednesday, the sisters awake before sunrise to make their way the White House lawn, where they look on from the bleachers as President Obama greets Pope Francis.
After witnessing the historic event, Sister Simone is elated. "Pope Francis is so fabulous," she says. "He doesn't do diplomatic double-speak, he just speaks from his heart about what matters – that he is the son of immigrants and our nation is created by immigrants, and then climate change, and his concern for the people at the economic margins of our society. That is the heart of what we're all about."
The sisters watch and listen, looking for a way to get their iPad, loaded with 40 video clips of Americans' stories, to the pope.
"I had a dreamy idea that maybe I could give it to him at the White House," says Sister Simone. "That was not happening!"
But, she says, the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways: The nuns meet an American priest close to the pope, who promises to get it to him. "I have this idea that the pope might want to watch it on the plane going home," Sister Simone says.
Meanwhile, Sister Simone and the rest of the Nuns on the Bus are watching the festivities along with the rest of America – and, like everyone else, they're hoping the issues they care most about will be recognized.
"When Pope Francis spoke today, it was really about bridging the divide," says Sister Simone. She goes on to discuss the pope's mid-day prayer with the bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. "I have to confess, I just saw the pictures… and I see all the bishops and archbishops, and not a woman in sight. So there's still struggle," she says. "But I think there's more understanding there than there has been."
Update, October 2: By the time Pope Francis departed for Rome after his historic visit to the United States, he had the iPad full of stories collected by the Nuns on the Bus in his possession. "Hearing that Pope Francis received our tablet with 40 videos of 'our people' from our recent bus trip brought tears to my eyes," Sister Simone Campbell tells Rolling Stone. "It had been our dream to give him a chance to have a virtual encounter with people from the heartland of our nation. We were trusted by them to bring their stories. I rejoice that their trust was fulfilled in its delivery." NETWORK also posted some of the video clips online.