Sister Bertha goes to Washington for State of the Union

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 25, 2012 

WASHINGTON — It's one of the biggest nights of the year in Washington's political culture.

All of its glitterati are there: Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, the military brass and the diplomatic corps.

But also crammed into the House chamber Tuesday night for the president's annual State of the Union address was a 75-year-old nun more accustomed to the company of Kansas City's homeless than the capital’s elite.

Call it “Sister Berta Goes to Washington,” in which Sister Berta Sailer — who for 40 years has championed the struggles of the working poor — hears a major presidential speech in a historic setting.

“I know it’s a real big thing,” she said before the speech. “It’s just an honor to be here.”

It was her third trip to Washington, but her first time on Capitol Hill.

She also got a brief entree into the corridors of power as well, thanks to U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City. He invited Sailer to the speech as his guest and got her some important face time, too.

An ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Cleaver brought Sailer to the Democratic leader’s reception before President Barack Obama spoke. He also set up a meeting at the Department of Health and Human Services where she could talk about the needs of her program.

Sailer, along with Sister Corita Bussanmas, founded Operation Breakthrough, a child-care center in Kansas City that now cares for more than 500 children. Most come from working families with incomes below the poverty line.

“Washington needs to see Sister Berta more than Sister Berta needs to see Washington,” Cleaver said. “She is in reality the reflection of what the president and Congress are supposed to be about: making life better for Americans.”

But Sailer is no newly minted Sen. Jefferson Smith, the fictional hero and political naïf in Frank Capra’s classic film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” She’s well-versed in the ways of legislative politics in Jefferson City. It’s given her a hard-won sense of the possible for a constituency with a muted voice.

Still, “she’s not someone to sit back and blend in with the furniture,” Cleaver added.

Sailer won’t hit you over the head with a two-by-four to try and sway you, either. But in her voice is a quiet pleading.

She probably will tell federal health officials that often just earning a few more cents at a fast-food restaurant job can force a single working mother to lose her housing and child-care subsidies.

If she was given the chance at the pre-speech reception, she might have told a lawmaker about the loss of hope in some urban communities, such as the time that she was driving by a fire station when the 4-year-old foster child in the back seat said, “If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.”

“I really feel strongly that many people who are making the rules for these families have never met them or know how hard they work,” she said.

Sailer acknowledged that sometimes it’s like trying to throw rocks over a very high wall. But for the past two days she was behind it, trying to make the most out of the moment.

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