Washington, D.C. — The 2015 Nuns on the Bus tour concluded here Tuesday with a rally on the National Mall hours ahead of Pope Francis' arrival in the United States.
On their 13-day tour, the sisters hosted 33 events in in seven states to "connect with real people — and to hear about the injustices they encounter daily," according to the Nuns on the Bus website. The theme of the fourth annual trip: "Bridge the Divides, Transform Politics."
"If we can't face and bridge the divides here, where else can we expect it to be done?" asked Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, leader of the bus tour and executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby.
The rally saw a number of struggling Americans sharing their stories.
"We walked off our job because federal contractors make billions in profit, but workers live in poverty," said Bertrand Olotara, a federal contract worker employed as a cook at the U.S. Senate.
Olotara, a college graduate who works two low-wage jobs "to make ends meet," is one of many federal contractors striking at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings. The workers are organizing under the banner Good Jobs Nation, a coalition of labor, faith and D.C.-area community groups.
"I want the pope to know that immigrant workers like me are struggling to survive on poverty pay at the U.S. Capitol," he said. "I only hope that senators open their hearts and minds to his word and stop giving federal contracts that keep workers in poverty and force us to rely on public aid programs to survive."
Karen Reed, a driver for MetroAccess, an area transit service for people with disabilities, told the rally, "$13 dollars an hour is not enough for a family to make it in D.C."
Reed said low wages made her family homeless last year, "and still I went to work every day," she said. "Never showed up late. My employers or co-workers never knew what I was going through.
"With little to no benefits and no pension, I know it looks bleak for me and lot of other working people," she said. "But I am optimistic. I believe by sharing our stories and demanding our fair share of our companies' profits, things will get better."
Esmeralda Dominguez, a We Belong Together activist, attended the rally after taking part in the 100 Women, 100 Miles pilgrimage, which began Sept. 15 in York, Pennsylvania, and ended in D.C. to greet Pope Francis.
"Through our suffering, through our tired feet, through our hungry stomachs, through our tired brains, people can see what most of us immigrants have to face," she told the rally.
"Walking 100 miles is nothing compared to the suffering that they have to go through," she said.
Campbell then gave a reflection on the trip, NETWORK's fourth.
"We started in St. Louis, Missouri. We chose to start in St. Louis because it has become an icon of the racial divide in our society," she said, referring to the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer and the racial unrest that followed.
She spoke of a "toxicity" that plagues American society, where certain people are discriminated against and forced to play by a stricter set of rules because of the color of their skin or their country of origin.
That's "wrong in a nation that says, 'We the people,'" she said. "It's wrong in our nation that is built on the principle that we are all created equal. . . . It's wrong in our faith that says all are welcome at the table."