BY ISN STAFF | October 20, 2020
On September 23, 2020, the Ignatian Solidarity Network presented the Robert M. Holstein Faith Doing Justice Award to Fr. John Baumann, S.J., founder of PICO California, and Sr. Simone Campbell, S.S.S., executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. The Q&A below is adapted from ISN executive director Christopher Kerr’s conversation with them during the virtual event Ignite: A Celebration of Justice, where the awards were presented.
Chris Kerr: You’ve been doing this work for a long time and in different iterations. What was a point when you were really proud of your work?
Sr. Simone Campbell: When the Affordable Care Act passed, it was this miracle, this amazing miracle, because we had worked so hard…It was so exciting.
But I was so naive. Because you never win these things; because immediately what happened was the beginning of the pushback…You never can declare victory, I’ve discovered, because there’s always some erosion, some slippery slope. And so while I enjoyed that day, I remember it vividly…three days later [the attacks and erosion began]. And now we’re facing a very serious crisis [in the pandemic]. This year, who we elect matters. Maybe I’ll have a sense of victory.
Fr. John Baumann: Every day, I hear what the people in our communities are doing across the United States and in El Salvador, Rwanda, and Haiti, and…that’s where I get my energy…they are the ones that are making community organizing work throughout the U.S. and in our international work. That’s where I get my energy—seeing the people, identifying what is very important for their families, and seeing that they are willing to come together, figure out a way of pushing our legislators to make a change.
Sr. Simone: What I realized John, is you’re saying that these moments may be a victory, but that’s not nourishment, what you’re talking about is where our roots are. In some ways the victories are like a flower that blooms maybe for the day, but it’s the roots [of your work] and what nourishes your roots.
Chris: Sr. Simone, you have an ability to bring the stories from your time traveling the country on the Nuns on the Bus tours back to Washington D.C.—the voices of people impacted by policy across the country. Fr. Baumann, PICO really gets in and works directly with communities and uses such a conversation-based model as a way to initiate and engage with communities. I think there’s such synergy between the work that you do on two sides of the country.
I am inspired by both of you, your work and what you continue to do, but who inspires you? Who are people that have been inspiring or motivational to you?
Sr. Simone: I’m thinking about a young man that I met at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice a few years ago. He was a senior at one of the Jesuit high schools. He was at the Teach-In right after an election. And he had just voted for the first time. But what he discovered at the Teach-In was that he wished he had voted differently. And he came to me, waited in line after I’d done a presentation, he was the last one to come to me and it was sort of like going to confession for him. [He asked] about what he could do. His discovery that not just following his parents or his grandparents was this moment of awareness— but he felt it as a failure as opposed to a door opening and a discovery for him. And so he taught me in that moment how important the Teach-In is for opening doors for young people. I don’t know his name, but he inspired me to keep going because he was willing to walk through this door of his certitude to learn something new.
Fr. John: Initially, it would have been Pope John XXIII. Vatican II changed my life. From there I was introduced to community organizing through my mentor Tom Godet. Over the years, there have been many people, especially staff that have supported the work that we’re doing. And Pope Francis is an ongoing inspiration for me to keep going because of the way he talks about what the church is about.
Chris: How has Pope Francis impacted your work?
Sr. Simone: Today is the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis coming to the U.S. He spoke at the White House five years ago today, and tomorrow is five years after speaking to Congress. His leadership is so grounded in a spiritual journey and in nurturing that journey into caring for the Earth, caring for the world, and ending exploitation.
Fr. John: I have a quote right over my computer. And I just pulled it down. It’s one sentence. Pope Francis says, “I prefer a church, which is bruised, hurting, and dirty, because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Chris: A different way of looking at church, a new way of looking at church.
Sr. Simone: Actually, the old way of church was like that. I mean, it wasn’t exactly neat and lacy with Jesus so, we’re just back to the future.
Chris: What is your favorite Gospel reading?
Fr. John: The Good Samaritan. Because as I think about it, when we talk about the road to Jericho, we’re on that road every day, and we’re meeting people that are poor, and people that are in need. I often think about the importance of responding as we’re on that road to Jericho.
Sr. Simone: The Samaritan woman at the well. Because what it’s about is bridging divides between men and women, bridging divides between the beggars and the foreigners, bridging divides, and asking each other for help. That to me is the essence of community and building a future together.
Chris: How about your favorite saint?
Fr. John: Well, of course, St. Ignatius springs out for me, because there’s so much of how the Spiritual Exercises have definitely influenced my life.
Sr. Simone: I’m Simone for Simon Peter. Quite frankly, I’m quite like Peter. I have a tendency to leap out of boats before I think, and then get frightened and maybe sink a little bit, or be certain that I’ll just be really fine in a situation and then forget my anchor or my values. So for me, Peter. . . What can I say, quite like him—a big heart but kind of a failure periodically.
Chris: Thinking back to your earlier years in life, what’s something you wish you could have told your younger self, or you wish you would have known, about yourself or about the world?
Sr. Simone: Fear not, fear not.
Fr. John: We have a long period of formation in the Jesuits, and I think from the day I entered in 1956, and all the way through until I reached theology, during those early years of formation [I was isolated from the people]. We’re too protective. [So much of my work is a] result of being given an opportunity to be with the people more in communities and to learn from them.
Chris: We’re in this unique time right now in the world. In terms of the pandemic and, what’s something that throughout all of this you’ve learned about yourself, or about the world around you that you didn’t realize pre-pandemic?
Sr. Simone: I didn’t realize how tactile I am. How much I miss touching and hugging and embracing, and being in presence of intimate spaces. I miss that a lot. And Zoom is a poor facsimile.
Fr. John: As we get through this, there’s really going to be a new normal. And I think in the new normal, people are going to be more aware of the issues that the poor are facing, and hopefully our behavior will change.
Chris: What’s a message you would like to send to those who are just starting out their vocations in life, young people who have a desire to work for justice?
Fr. John: Listen to the people.
Sr. Simone: And I would add, listen to the people, and respond in the Spirit. Trust the Spirit within. Just go for it. Go for it. Because the people will lead you and dry you out and you’ll know together where to go.
Chris: One of the things that’s unique about the two of you as honorees in the name of Bob Holstein is that, John, you were present at some of those early Teach-Ins for Justice, and Sr. Simone, you’ve played such an important role in recent Teach-Ins, whether it’s keynoting from the mainstage or joining us out on Capitol Hill to fire folks up before they head into meetings with Congressional members. What’s a memory that touches you about your experiences with the Teach-In?
Fr. John: Before the tent, Bob Holstein would pull many of us together to go to Georgia for the Teach-In. Bob had a real devotion to the Eucharist and the mass, and the first year, he would spread the word. “Come to my hotel room, and we’ll have mass.” There was a small group of us. The second year, word started to spread around. We had mass. The third year, we had so many people coming that we ended up in the hallway in the hotel—several hundred people. It was those early days of coming together that are just so precious. As a result of that, ISN was born. And look what ISN is doing now. I was privileged to be on the board right at the beginning, and I am just so grateful to ISN and what you’ve done over the years.
And I would say, the Teach-In now, it’s that same energy of discovery, of possibility, of intense conversation among young people, of finding new ways forward, sharing hope, thinking of the martyrs, engaged with this new discovered passion for justice. I feel called back to my younger self. But, it’s very clear that I’m not my younger self because I have to go to bed earlier than they do. But the energy and the commitment is the same, and I feel so grateful for your work in nourishing that and creating relationships all across the country that make it possible for young people to take a step towards a life committed to justice. Wow. What more can we ask for? Thank you for that work. And your whole team that makes that happen. It’s amazing.