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Sister Lobbyist : Sheila Walsh Is the Only Nun Lobbying Full Time in Sacramento; She Sees It as No Less a Mercy Than Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Poor

July 12, 1988|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When the legislature is in session, as it was through June, Sister Sheila Walsh is on the go early in the morning. She leaves the pretty Spanish-style house on the tree-lined street where she lives with three other members of the Sisters of Social Service, drives to her cramped, sunny office a short sprint from the Capitol, catches up on phone messages and sets the volunteers up for the day. Then it's off at a fast clip to the Capitol to lobby the legislators--often on into late-night sessions.

A simply dressed, middle-aged woman in thick, flat, the-better-to-move-fast-in sandals, she rush es through the corridors, taking the stairs ("My only exercise") on many a hurry-up-and-wait mission. Weighed down by a loaded brief case and heavy shoulder bag, the latter frequently dangling close to the floor, she moves about the building almost always with her small, well-thumbed directory of current legislators open and in hand.

The only professional lobbyist here who is a Catholic nun, and one of the few people to lobby for the poor, the elderly, children and the homeless, Sister Sheila works for a recently formed, interfaith organization called "Jericho: a lobby for justice."

This is Jericho's first year in Sacramento. But Sister Sheila, as she is invariably called, is a familiar figure to old-timers at the Capitol--bureaucrats, veteran legislators and staff--and she does not get far down a corridor without someone calling out to her.

Many know her from the old days, when she spent nine years as a lobbyist for the California Catholic Conference, the office of the Roman Catholic bishops of the state's 12 dioceses, or, as Walsh says it is often described, "the voice of the bishops."

It is another story with the newcomers, freshmen legislators and young staff. It sometimes borders on the comic. The Capitol is not a setting where one is on the lookout for nuns, nor does Walsh wear a habit. The only sign of her religious order is a metal medallion of a dove and the message "Come Holy Spirit" printed around it.

One young aide, a stranger to her, took a fleeting look at the pin one recent morning and said approvingly, "Save the whales. That's good."

"Actually, this is the Holy Spirit," she said, grinning softly down at it.

"Oh, that's good too."

Jericho, formed by the Sisters of Social Service in 1986 in order to provide "people of faith with a way to monitor California state legislation," using Judeo/Christian principles as a measure, consists of two corporations, a tax-exempt one for education and research, and the lobby for advocacy work. Walsh and Sister Deborah Lorentz serve as co-directors of both, with Walsh lobbying out of Sacramento and Lorentz doing education, outreach, membership development and administration out of Los Angeles.

The focus of the education, Lorentz said in Los Angeles, "is to make the connections for members of faith communities between their religious faith commitment and public policy." There are about 500 individual and 70 group members.

"If we had 4,000 members, 50 from each assembly district, 100 from each Senate district, we could really make an impact," Sister Sheila said, describing Jericho's eventual goal of an organized chapter in each district. "If Jericho is going to be a success, it's that the legislators will have heard about it from their constituents. It's exciting if I go in to an office and they've heard from them on a bill we support."

A native Angeleno, Sister Sheila has been with the Sisters of Social Service since 1956--and that is as close as she will come to telling her age--"It's just one of those things I have a thing about," she laughingly acknowledged.

She completed her education while in the convent, received a master of social work degree from Catholic University in Washington, and did both social and parish work throughout California, including working in Sacramento for the elderly.

Living Out the Gospels

Lobbying for her is a matter of social justice, and she sees it as no less a ministering to the poor and living out the Gospels than are such mercies as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and clothing the naked.

In fact, the two are necessarily related to her, the Sisters of Social Service and Jericho, she said.

"Give food out, yes, but you always try to change the system so (the poor) can buy their own food."

Systemic change is one of Jericho's criteria for supporting legislation. With 5,000 bills under consideration each year, it has to be selective. Jericho sets its agenda, she said, by polling its membership for issues, and selecting bills its interfaith legislative committee judge to be acceptable to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. Only those bills are taken on that have a measureable impact on the poor, that can lead to systemic change rather than an alleviation of symptoms. They also, Sister Sheila added pragmatically, have to have a chance of making it.

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