A fundraising dinner Tuesday for a Pittsburgh-area nonprofit will feature a keynote address by a Catholic nun who gained national prominence as an advocate for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul legislation and arrives fresh from Capitol Hill, where she took part in an interfaith prayer rally last week to end the federal government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
Sister Simone Campbell will headline the 25th Harvest Celebration Dinner for Just Harvest, founded in 1986 to combat poverty and hunger in southwestern Pennsylvania and strengthen the "anti-poverty safety net," says Emily Cleath, the group's communications coordinator.
The nonprofit, which Ms. Cleath called the region's only real anti-poverty organization, helps connect low-income people with tax season guidance to help them take advantage of earned-income tax credits, helps families sign up for food stamps and launched the "Fresh Access" program, which opened up six local farmers' markets to people on food stamps.
"We believe that hunger is caused by economic injustice and you can't end hunger without reducing economic injustice," she said. "There's record disparity in income and wealth in this country, and there are a variety of ways that you can mitigate that, such as labor unions [and] quality education for all."
Ms. Cleath called Sister Campbell, also an attorney and poet, a "tireless and powerful and respected leader in the fight for a just society."
"She is passionate about wanting to protect the most vulnerable in our society, which is a principle I assume she takes from her religion," Ms. Cleath said. "While we're not a religious organization, we ascribe to that same principle, that the least among us must be protected and that a society that lets the most vulnerable suffer is not a just society."
Sister Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic "social justice lobby," also stopped in Pittsburgh during the first "Nuns on the Bus" tour organized last year to oppose the budget proposal by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., seen as undoing the nation's social safety net.
"I've been to Pittsburgh several times, and I find your city a really interesting mix of challenges and great strides you have made," said Sister Campbell, who will speak at the dinner on her 68th birthday. She recalled a childhood visit to Pittsburgh, which left an impression of a bleak and foreboding industrial town, but called the city's transformation in the past several decades a remarkable feat.
"I always learn something in your city," said Sister Campbell, a native of Los Angeles who joined the Sisters of Social Service after her freshman year in college. The group describes itself as rooted in Benedictine values and says its mission is to "fulfill the gospel call to care for the poor and alienated."
Sister Campbell said social justice is "at the heart of the gospel" and includes working to broaden access to food, housing, health care and education.
"It is valuing the dignity of all people and working to ensure all can realize and live that dignity," she said.
Sister Campbell is also an associate member of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a national association for American Catholic women in religious orders. The group earned a rebuke from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for perceived doctrinal flaws, including over the "correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons," the ordination of women and "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with Catholic faith" and was ordered to undergo an overhaul.
Sister Campbell has also drawn fire for her backing of the Obama administration's health care law from Catholics who opposed requiring religious organizations to provide coverage for birth control, abortion-inducing drugs and reproductive services to which they object. Though the administration has exempted the "worship wing" of dioceses from the mandate to provide those services, that does not include educational and charitable wings of religious organizations, according to a lawsuit filed this month by the Diocese of Pittsburgh against the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Sister Campbell said bishops' staffs have misrepresented the accommodations that the Obama administration has made for religious organizations and added that expanding the exemptions too broadly could become a "slippery slope" for employees whose coverage is impacted by their employer's religious beliefs.
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM