<em>Nuns on the Bus </em>taking US by storm

Harrisburg - Signing autographs along the way, a group of Catholic nuns is taking a road trip across America to stand up for the poor.

The media-savvy Nuns on the Bus tour kicked off in the midwestern state of Iowa on June 17 and is making a slew of stops around the country to convey concern about social injustice.

"Our bus is about a policy conversation ... to say we the people of the United States, we can be a better union," organiser Simone Campbell told AFP during a stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where the sister on Thursday hailed a historic US Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.

The idea for the trip, sponsored by the Catholic lobbying group Network, headed by Campbell, came about in May after the Vatican released a report that charged the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents most US nuns, of "radical feminism" and not focusing enough on fighting gay marriage.

Network, which did not back Catholic bishops in their opposition to Obama's healthcare law, was taken to task by the Vatican for its links to LCWR.

"It was like a punch in the stomach," said Campbell, who was greeted with warm applause and autograph requests as she arrived in Harrisburg.

Media attention

Describing herself as a strong woman and lawyer, Campbell, who is the executive director of Network, laughed off the notion that she was radical.

"It doesn't seem radical to me, it's not who I am - I am just a woman who cares passionately about people in poverty, that's it," she said.

Following the Vatican's rebuke, the sisters decided to ride the wave of media attention and draw attention to their cause.

When someone brought up the idea for a bus tour, they seized the opportunity and within 10 days had raised $150 000 for the cause.

Before long, they boarded a colourful bus that resembles one used by rock stars or politicians on the campaign trail.

Not to be missed is the huge inscription: "Nuns on the bus" coupled with their theme: "nuns drive for faith, family and fairness".

On their various stops, Campbell, a registered lobbyist, denounces congressional budget cuts, highlighting how millions of people risk losing food stamps and access to Medicaid, US government health insurance for the poor.

"I work very hard to get federal policies that reflect our moral principles," she said. "I annoy the Democrats and I annoy the Republicans ... the issue is caring for people at the margins."

The Catholic leaders have not commented on the tour, a fact Campbell - who has defended the poor for 40 years - doesn't take too much to heart.

"Historically, nuns have always annoyed bishops," she said jokingly.

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