Sister Ilaria Buonriposi has traveled the world to work with the disadvantaged over the past 30 years, ministering to prisoners in Spain, to the poor in the slums of Peru, to children in the violent streets of Colombia.
It has gratified her to do God's work among the forgotten around the globe — that's the mission, after all, of the her international order of Catholic nuns, the Comboni Missionary Sisters — but she has never looked forward to a journey more than the one she's about to take across the midwestern United States.
Buonriposi, 51, who lives and works at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore, is about to join the Nuns on The Bus, an annual initiative in which a group of Catholic sisters takes a tour of several states by bus, stopping in multiple places along the way to work with the needy and draw attention to social-justice causes.
Sisters who specialize in applying Catholic doctrine to societal problems are chosen from parishes across the country.
Buonriposi, a native of Florence, Italy, who has lived in Baltimore since 2009, is the first sister based in town to join the tour.
This year's tour — the fifth — starts in Madison, Wis., on Monday, and will take a rotating roster of 18 nuns 2,400 miles through 13 states, finally rolling into Philadelphia on July 25.
Nine sisters will be riding at any given time in the lounge-style vehicle, which this year will stop in 23 cities, including St. Louis, Terre Haute, Ind., Rochester, N.Y., Concord, N.H., and Newark, N.J.
The bus will bear the tour's 2016 theme, "Mend The Gaps," in blue letters across a mural-sized map that displays the planned destinations.
It will bring the sisters to both national political conventions — the Republican gathering in Cleveland on July 18-21, and its Democratic counterpart in Philadelphia on July 25-28.
Each tour has focused on one issue related to social justice as the sisters view it: pending congressional budget cuts in 2012, immigration reform in 2013, voter registration in 2014, bridging political divides last year.
This year's theme, "Mending the Gaps: Reweaving the Fabric of Society," refers to what NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice — the nonprofit that organizes the trips — views as the need to reduce the "widening gaps in income inequality in our nation" and develop a less hostile, more inclusive political atmosphere.
"At every stop, we will meet with Americans who are struggling," the group's promotional material for the tour says. "We will hear their stories and call on everyone running for office to listen as well, and to do everything in their power to mend the gap — to close the vast and growing economic and social divides that are weakening the fabric of our country."
In every city, the nuns will hold a caucus with members of the public that explores seven issues NETWORK sees as crucial to mending such gaps: tax policy, living wages, family-friendly workplaces, voting rights, access to equitable health care, access to housing and immigration.
Each nun will be responsible for one issue, leading discussions, hearing stories and proposing solutions in that area.
Buonriposi's is living wages — what NETWORK calls the right of working adults to be paid a fair wage.
It's a subject she learned about long ago.
In ministering to the poor, she says, she has seen time and time again that men and women who must hold down several jobs have little chance to spend time with their families, beginning a cycle of neglect that can have disastrous long-term consequences.
One of her areas of focus has been working with inmates, including immigrants awaiting deportation at the Howard County Detention Center and prisoners on Death Row in places where capital punishment remains legal.
She says that while she would never condone any crimes of which such inmates have been convicted, it's usually individuals who have grown up with little access to quality education, health care or safe neighborhoods who end up committing them.
"It's easy for people to say, 'I would never be in that person's position,' but it's not always something you choose," Buonriposi says. "It's something that happens. If you address the problems that lead to these negative outcomes, it's possible to prevent those outcomes."
Buonriposi says that while the nuns on the tour address issues often framed in political terms, their approach is moral in nature, not political.
"Pope Francis tells us to appeal to the dignity of the individual human beings, and that's our perspective," she says.
Sister Simone Campbell of Washington, D.C., the executive director of NETWORK, helped launch the Nuns on the Bus program in 2012, after a Vatican commission under Pope Benedict XVI issued a report criticizing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents the majority of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.
The report cited NETWORK as being a negative influence on the group, specifically because it so strongly emphasizes social-justice issues at the expense of the Vatican's favored issues at the time — abortion and same-sex marriage.
After consulting her colleagues in prayer, Campbell says, NETWORK developed the bus-tour idea, which has drawn significant media attention over the years and succeeded far beyond their expectations.
Campbell, who travels with the group, seems to take pride in its maverick nature.
"We make sure to talk to people who hold views different from our own. We're equal-opportunity annoyers," she says.
Campbell, who had met Buonriposi years earlier, ran into her at a conference last year and asked what she was doing this summer.
The Baltimore-based sister says she had followed Nuns on the Bus through the media for years and was thrilled at the invitation.
Given permission from her order, she accepted. She is to fly to Madison on Monday to begin her leg of the trip, which ends at the Republican convention.
There, she says, she expects to encounter "people who are likely not to have the same point of view on some of these issues that we do."
Facing down disagreement, she says, is a large part of the mission.
"This will be a great opportunity to be bring these issues into the open, to work with others, to make our little voices heard," she says. "I'm very excited about this trip."