By Melissa Silverman
Sister Simone Campbell is an attorney, advocate, poet and Sister of Social Service. According to her Twitter bio, she is also a “mischief maker.” Her brand of good trouble earned her another accolade in July: recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
As a resident of Southwest DC for almost 18 years, Sister Campbell is deeply engaged in her community, keeping tabs on the development of the lots at 4th Street and M Street SW and the city’s promise to prevent displacement of residents during the Greenleaf redevelopment. However, she is also a nationally known leader and advocate for social justice and equal access to health care who helped organize seven cross-country “Nuns on the Bus” tours in support of economic justice and the Affordable Care Act.
In 2012, the Vatican started an investigation of the leadership of Catholic Sisters in the United States and accused NETWORK (the organization that Sister Campbell led) of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Pope Francis ended the investigation in 2015 and affirmed the work of Catholic Sisters on his visit to the U.S. that year, but it was this notoriety that led to the bus tour. In 2014, her work attracted the attention of then-Vice President Joe Biden, who insisted on a chance to ride the bus at a stop in Des Moines, Iowa.
Her faith unshaken, Sister Campbell continued her leadership as Executive Director of NETWORK, a social justice advocacy organization founded by Catholic Sisters. Her lifetime of service was recognized at the end of June, when, as Sister Campbell says, she was “sitting at [her] computer, working away” when a White House operator called and asked her to please hold for the President.
Biden asked if she would accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom and join a ceremony at the White House in early July.
“I was quite overwhelmed when he asked,” Sister Campbell said. “I got tears in my eyes, and thought, ‘whoa.’ It was a super surprise for me, I was pretty stunned.”
The White House ceremony featured 16 other honorees, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, civil rights attorney Fred Gray, and athletes Megan Rapinoe and Simone Biles. Sister Campbell took the opportunity to tell Gray she had studied his work in law school, and to share the excitement of being “two Simones” with Biles, who she was seated next to.
“The ceremony itself was really moving, to be with all these amazing people,” Sister Campbell said.
In a press release, the White House said that the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors, “demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith.”
Sister Campbell brought friends and family to the ceremony, as well as the leader of her religious community. The group, she said, “reflected the tapestry of my life. I was really grateful to have them have that experience.”
The in-person ceremony marked an emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, time Sister Campbell said she passed with close friends in Southwest DC.
“Every Saturday, we go to the farmer’s market…and get two almond croissants. I bring the coffee in a Thermos and we go sit by the river and look out on the beautiful park at the water going into the Tidal Basin. The Titanic Memorial…is the place for breakfast and gossip,” Sister Campbell said.
Even as she enjoys the neighborhood, Sister Campbell is not slowing down. Her latest project, Understanding US, is an effort to connect Americans across divides and promote understanding and dialogue.
“We’re not trying to change minds, but to listen and hear each other,” she said. “LetUSunderstand.us is an effort to try to create healing in a very divided nation.”
With so many challenges facing the world, Sister Campbell says “the key is to be sensitive to what issues break your head, and then respond. Coming from a place of broken hearts is to let people into our lives and respond to those in need.”