Sister Mary Scullion accompanied Congressman Dwight Evans (D-PA) to Tuesday’s State of the Union address to raise awareness about homelessness, or as she calls it, the “prophetic sign that something is radically wrong in America.”
As the co-founder of Project HOME, Scullion has spent the last three decades serving and advocating for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia. That work has her convinced that “homelessness is solvable, if we have the political will.”
Project HOME began in 1989 as a short-term emergency winter shelter for men. In the years since, the organization has developed more than 800 units of affordable, supportive housing and expanded their range of services to include employment training, educational opportunities and medical care.
The movement’s many successes have garnered national attention. In 2009, TIME Magazine named Scullion in its top 100 list of people who most affect the world. Scullion and her co-founder, Joan McConnon, also received Notre Dame’s 2011 Laetare Medal, joining the ranks of people like Martin Sheen, Sister Helen Prejean, and Walker Percy.
During her return journey from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, Scullion spoke with Crux about her decision to attend the president’s speech, reflected on the experience of being in the room for one of the most polarizing State of the Union addresses in recent memory and explained why she applauds Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for tearing up her copy of the president’s remarks afterwards.
Crux: What was your reaction when you received the invitation from Congressman Evans?
Scullion: Congressman Evans has been a long-time advocate for affordable housing and issues relating to homelessness, so when he called and asked if I’d be his guest at the State of the Union, I was just so humbled, touched, and excited. We’ve joined with him on several occasions to raise the issue of homelessness and poverty in our city, so this was another opportunity to do that. He’s been a great advocate for the people we serve and the work we do.
What did the role of a Congressman’s guest entail?
I had the opportunity to meet most of the Pennsylvania delegation and many other leaders from across the nation who the Congressman was kind enough to introduce me to and tell them why I was there and what I hope to do. That included the congresswoman from Oakland, Barbara Lee, who works with Congressman Evans on the Ways and Means Committee. I also met the speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
I think that what most impressed me was so many women leaders there who have been educated by Catholic nuns. In so many cases, when we’d be introduced, these women would say, “Oh, I was taught by the Sisters of Loretto,” or the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of St. Joseph, or various other religious communities. It’s so gratifying to see what these women are doing now and what they’re standing for.
You weren’t the only Catholic Sister on the guest list. Did you have a chance to interact with the other guests?
I met some amazing people. I sat next to a DREAMer who is now teaching second grade in Arizona. Just a beautiful person with such commitment to kids and to education. Her brother now serves in the Air Force. So many amazing people there.
I also met Sister Norma Pimentel there. When Pope Francis came to the United States, he spoke with her because of her work with immigration, so I was aware of her work and who she was. It was funny, I just bumped into her there last night and introduced myself.
Women religious today work on the front lines of poverty, homelessness, and immigration. These issues mean so much to us because of our faith, so in these devastating circumstances, we look for ways to raise voices and experiences, so that it can be a way of healing and transforming our world through God’s grace.
This State of the Union came at a particularly charged moment in U.S. history. Some representatives chose to boycott, others left at various points during the speech, and Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of it at the end. At the same time, President Trump said that the State of the Union has never been stronger. How did you experience all of this?
The president has consistently distorted reality and the facts, and last night was no exception. It’s obviously very difficult to sit there and hear one message of propaganda after another. How do you respond with integrity to that, to those falsehoods? Policies on immigration are tearing families apart and keeping kids in cages and destroying lives. To say that the State of the Union has never been stronger is just hypocritical.
However, I’m also grateful for people. There was a gentleman there who was in attendance because his child was killed by gun violence. After the president talked about the importance of prayer and then pivoted right to guns, that gentleman got thrown out of the gallery. I applaud him for that. And I applaud the Speaker for tearing up the speech at the end. The president refused to shake her hand at the beginning. What’s more devastating, her tearing up a speech or the president’s policies on immigration that continues to tear families apart?
I know that there are different ways of seeing policies. One of the reasons I was grateful to be there was to engage and listen and try to understand differences. But it’s another thing when you demonize people. The way the president spoke about illegal immigrants in our country and demonized them and made them as other. That’s when you’ve taken things too far. It’s an affront to our faith.
Your fellow Sisters of Mercy were live-tweeting during the State of the Union address and they tied their tweets (many of which were very critical) to the phrase, “Our Union Needs Mercy.” What does that mean for you?
That phrase tells me that true compassion is transformational, it changes all of us. True compassion unites the human family, as Pope Francis has spoken so eloquently in referring to the face of God as mercy. So, pray for my transformation and my conversion to deeper faith. I think that in that room last night, in a particular way, our union really does need mercy.
You head up Project HOME in Philadelphia, which gives you a unique window into the lives of those struggling with homelessness. What should people know about homelessness as we move into this new decade?
Poverty and homelessness are institutionalized violence. They take a piece out of people every day. Our experience has been that with a safe and affordable place to call home, people can regroup, get back on their feet, take advantage of employment opportunities and health care and education. So, they’re not only able to come home and get out of the devastating situation of homelessness, but also thrive and become leaders. We’ve seen thousands of people – men, women, and children – become active citizens, leaders, workers, taxpayers, and civic leaders. The lives of these people continue to inspire me.
Permanent, affordable, safe housing is so important because homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the prophetic sign that says that something is radically wrong in America when this many citizens are living on our streets. The prophetic sign means we have to reinvest in affordable housing, education, employment with livable wages, and in our health care system, because that gives us the basis for the equal opportunity at the heart of the American dream.
Homelessness is solvable if we have the political will. As we say in our mission statement, none of us are home until all of us are home, and what affects any one of us directly, affects all of us indirectly.
Homelessness is our problem as a nation, and we need to own it and redirect some of our resources to ensure that every American family, every adult and child has a safe place to call home.
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