By Joanna Thurmann
“Hope is a communal virtue; it requires us to be in relationship with one another,” emphasized Sister Simone Campbell in her Friday, December 6 keynote at the annual California Catholic Ministry Conference held December 6-7 at the San José Convention Center. The theme of the conference was “Growing in Faith… Living with Hope.” Nearly 3,000 people attended from the Dioceses of San José, Monterey, Oakland, Stockton, Fresno, Salt Lake City, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Campbell herself lives out the hope she preaches as a religious sister, lawyer, lobbyist, and outspoken advocate for social justice. She is executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. “What we do at NETWORK is apply the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching to politics. I call myself an equal opportunity annoyer, because I annoy both Democrats and Republications,” she joked.
Campbell is also author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community, which describes her infamous bus rides across the US, along with other religious sisters, advocating for various social programs and reforms, including the Affordable Care Act.
“When we encounter tension – whether in our civil policy or church – we tend to pull the covers over our heads,” said Campbell. “The dominant narrative in our nation is about individualism. It is about doing it alone, being in charge, and taking care of oneself. But that story is the antithesis of the Gospel.”
Instead, we must nurture a hunger for hope and open ourselves to the deep craving of being connected. As people of faith, we are called to build community at a time when all messages are counter to it. Community must welcome difference and dialogue with others of opposing views.
When someone once called her a socialist, Campbell responded, “No, I’m just a Christian. The message of Jesus is that I am called to love even those people whom I want to vote off my island.” However, she admitted light-heartedly that she once had a list of those she considered to be “mistakes of God.” But then she decided to put them at the center of her prayer. “Christian discipleship requires us to be learners, bridge-builders, and modelers of hope for others.”
Some years ago, Campbell organized listening sessions between rural and urban folks, who both judged each other negatively. “Judgments divide us, and hope doesn’t flourish in division. It flourishes in meeting, connection, and knowledge of each other,” she said.
Hence, Campbell’s best tool is sharing profound stories, like those of Margaret who lost her job in the 2009 recession. Then she lost her healthcare benefits and stopped being screened for colon cancer, which ran in her family. By the time she was admitted to the ER, it was terminal and she died soon after. “Health care is a human right,” she emphasized. “Yet our nation says we cannot afford it.” So she began sharing Margaret’s story in her advocacy work. That led to Margaret’s family beginning to make sense of an otherwise senseless death and drawing closer to each other. Hope grew out of it.
Campbell concluded her keynote citing from the 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In it, Pope Francis says that hope and engagement in community is the way of holiness in the 21st century. Among the five characteristics of holiness is meekness, the virtue of “holy curiosity.” It is knowing you don’t know it all and thus being willing to learn. Second is joy and a sense of humor. We cannot be miserable and then ask our friends “come join us.” The third is passion and boldness. The fourth is finding hope in community. “We are the one body of Christ, and each of us is a part of it. I figured out that I am stomach acid,” joked Campbell. “My job is to stir things up.” The final characteristic of holiness is to live in constant prayer. Prayer is always about hope.