BENNINGTON >> The colorful bus bearing the "Nuns on the Bus" tour rolled into the parking lot at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church just before 4 p.m. on Thursday.
"Welcome, welcome, to the great state of Vermont," someone declared.
Inside were eight nuns from around the United States, along with some support staff. This is the fifth 'Nuns on the Bus' tour, this one with the theme "Mend the Gaps: Reweaving the Fabric of Society." This tour includes 23 cities in 13 states. This is the first time the tour has ever come to Vermont. Most recently, the nuns had been at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland; earlier on Thursday they had been at a rally at the capitol in Albany, N.Y.
In all, about 20 nuns are involved in the tour, some getting off and on the bus at different stops. At Bennington, they were greeted in the parking lot by parishioners and others interested in meeting them. The tour began on July 11 in Wisconsin.
"Specifically, the sisters are pushing for economic policies focused on tax justice, living wages and family-friendly workplaces," a press release announcing the stop states. "In addition, economic disparity has created perilous gaps in access to democracy, healthcare, housing, and citizenship that are excluding people from society and widening the divides among us. Positions on these policies are the defining issues for the 2016 elections."
The nuns have extensive resumes. One of the youngest of the eight, Sister Alison McCrary, belongs to the Sisters for Christian Community order and is a social justice attorney and director of the New Orleans Community-Police Mediation Program. She also spends time as a spiritual advisor to people on death row in Louisiana. "Each of us are assigned a different topic of discussion to engage people on and mine is around democracy and who has access to democracy and who doesn't have full access to democracy. So whether it's through voter disenfranchisement, if someone is on probation or parole like one of the 70,000 in my home state of Louisiana." Other issues included in this topic are how campaigns are funded.
"This is my first year on the bus. I joined with them at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on Sunday. We started our lemonade ministry engaging people in the streets about what's important to them, what their concerns are during this election cycle and what their hopes are for our country," McCrary said. "We're going to do the same thing next week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia."
Inside the parish center, about 60 people mixed with this sisters and shared a potluck supper with them. The sisters fanned out to hold conversations with the people present. One of the conversations during the dinner was with Sister Rochelle Mitchell, a Sister of Social Service based in Enrico, Calif. She is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice and has been a nun for 57 years. This is her first time as a "nun on the bus" and her topic of expertise for discussion is immigration.
She spoke with Aaron Hamblin, a recent graduate of Williams College in nearby Williamstown, Mass., with a degree in religion. Also, present was Abby Rampone, who is studying comparative literature at Williams. Both have been active in the Williams interfaith group. This reporter participated in the conversation.
The dialogue with Mitchell touched on immigration issues and the many difficulties in the lives of the undocumented, interfaith work, the recent warm winter in Vermont, the economy and more. Mitchell asked them and this reporter about what issues are most important in Bennington.
Part of the stated purpose of the tour is for the Nuns on the Bus to "gather the stories of Americans who are caught in the gaps — the gaps between communities and the gaps between what people have and what they need to reach their full potential. The nuns will share what they learn with political leaders at the conventions and later in Washington."
The Nuns on the Bus tour, including the visit to Bennington, was led by Sister Simone Campbell. Campbell, 71, a Sister of Social Service, is executive director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, which launched the first Nuns on the Bus tour during the 2012 presidential campaign. She is originally from Santa Monica, Calif., and is an attorney.
The Rev. Bob Wiseman, CSC, pastor of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales thanked everyone for coming. "These wonderful ladies have done great work over the years," he said, before leading a prayer.
Said Campbell, "We've been on the road to gather stories and to encourage mending the gaps," she said. "We know that income, wealth disparity in our nation is really tearing us apart." In this presidential election cycle, "the hate speech and the anger and the division — for us, it's just painful."
She described the sisters' lemonade ministry at the Republican National Convention and the questions they asked those they spoke with during the lemonade ministry there. They will ask the same questions a the Democratic National Convention next week and then compare the answers. The questions are: Who in your family can't you talk about politics with and why? What concerns you most about this election cycle? What gives you hope for out nation?
"We want to compare what the Republicans say to what the Democrats say,"Campbell said. "I have a hunch that our hopes are similar."
Those attending the Nuns on the Bus events are invited to sign a pledge to help mend the gaps. These eventually will be presented to the U.S. senators in the state they're in. "If you commit to mending the gaps, we'll ask you to sign the bus so that by the time you're through, it's no longer just nuns on the bus, but it's all of us together on the bus," Campbell said.