Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Church’s lead Olympia lobbyist: 25 years of giving justice a voice

by Terry McGuire

(From the May 19, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Sharon Park OP Dominican Sister Sharon Park (right) has dedicated 25 years to the legislative work of the Washington State Catholic Conference. (Photo: Mike Penney)

She’s smart, thorough, prepared, compassionate, a moral resource in the hard-driven world of state politics.

The descriptions of Dominican Sister Sharon Park and her work as the Catholic Church’s lead lobbyist in Olympia come easily from the mouths of legislators, colleagues and others who know her.

“Anytime I’m dealing with the legislature or with people in the public policy arena, I want Sister Sharon in the room with me,” says Donna Hanson, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane.

Sister Sharon personifies what a lobbyist should be, says longtime state lawmaker Sen. Margarita Prentice, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee. “She listens so intelligently, and because she’s been around here in the legislature long enough, she knows that often the issues that appear black and white on the outside — people view in different ways.

“It’s that kind of sensitivity that makes her so effective. And I know even the people who oppose her position always respect her.”

Archbishop Alex J. Brunett attributes the access he enjoys with state lawmakers to Sister Sharon’s sterling reputation in Olympia.

“I’m able to have entrée to almost anybody in the state capitol because she has set the groundwork for it,” he says. They’re “always happy to see me … because of the respect that people have for her and the appreciation they have for the way in which she handles very complex issues.”

The testimonies come as Sister Sharon marks her 25th year with the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops. WSCC’s executive director since 1997, she’s nearing the end of another legislative session, due to adjourn Sunday.

But bringing a moral perspective to the political process in the state legislature is only part of the WSCC mission, says Sister Sharon.

Through the WSCC, the bishops, among other actions, have opposed statewide initiatives on assisted suicide, abortion and other controversial issues, and have sought to commit society to the protection of God’s creation in their pastoral letter on the Columbia River.

The WSCC also convenes the diocesan directors of Catholic charities, social justice and respect life offices.

Who could’ve known when she first came to Olympia in 1976 that this graduate of Christ the King School and Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle would become the bishops’ voice in the political arena?

For one thing, Sister Sharon is a self-described “introvert,” hardly a plus for one engaged in politics. Second, her training was in nursing, a ministry she loved.

The transformation started when she served on the social justice committee of the Sisters’ Council in the mid-1970s. The group would take a social justice issue, study it, and act and pray upon it, doing things like meeting with lawmakers, visiting campaigns and sitting in on night courts. Three years into the process, they decided to tackle statewide politics. Two members were solicited to serve in Olympia.

Sister Sharon wasn’t one of them. She was happy in her work as a public health nurse, visiting the homes of mostly low-income families in Southeast Seattle’s subsidized housing communities.

But when one of the sisters selected for Olympia withdrew, she became a last-minute fill-in.

“I guess for many of our lives we don’t have any idea how the (Holy) Spirit works, but that’s what happened,” Sister Sharon said in a recent interview. “I also was motivated by the fact that many of the people that I saw in their homes were choosing between food and medicine because they didn’t have enough money for both…(and) it seemed to me that no one should have to make that choice.”

Sister Sharon and then-Sister Margaret Casey, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, were the two representatives in this new “political ministry.”

Committed for six months, both went on to serve for decades.

To get a grasp of their new ministry, they immersed themselves in the political process during that legislative session – getting plenty of practice because the session ran overtime and became the longest one in state history at the time.

Unlike a nurse, who can achieve personal rewards in helping a patient, those in political ministry work for little successes, and at an “inch by inch” pace, Casey said.

“Many times, just keeping bad things from happening was what we considered a win.”

Following the initial session, the two Sisters went to work for the WSCC. They were a bargain: two nuns, on stipends, working for the price of one.

Sister Sharon later interrupted her ministry to return to college and earn a master’s in theological studies with a concentration in biomedical ethics. It helped her better articulate the church’s ethical principles to lawmakers and others, an expertise that became invaluable in the 1991 fight against the assisted suicide (euthanasia) Initiative 119 and in the current fight against the use of human embryos for stem cell research.

In the months before the 1991 election, Sister Sharon, Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, and then-WSCC Executive Director Edward “Ned” Dolejsi worked exhaustively to persuade voters to defeat the assisted suicide measure.

“At that time, we (Washington State) were going to be the first place in the world to legalize it,” Sister Sharon recalled. “I must’ve given 250 talks in parishes (and before other groups) around the state.”

She became an “invaluable” spokesperson for the church, said Dolejsi, now executive director of the California Catholic Conference. “No one can articulate the church’s position and engage in a very well-grounded reality in health care like Sister Sharon,” Dolejsi said. With her “expertise as a nurse and caregiver…she has a wealth of wisdom” to share.

Initiative 119 went down to defeat. Today, Sister Sharon considers it one of the highlights of her time with the conference.

Her biggest disappointment: The abortion issue.

Though they’ve managed to include conscience clauses in legislation to prevent Catholic health care institutions from having to sanction abortions, attempts at requiring parental notification and other measures to lessen the taking of unborn life have regularly died in committee. “We’ve never been able to pass a proactive piece of legislation” against abortion, she said.

Sometimes, people wonder why the Catholic Church even needs lobbyists. She responds there are two ways the church works to change society for the better: By providing direct services, such as through food banks and other efforts, like when she was a visiting nurse; and by changing the structures that keep people in poverty.

“We have to try to change the structures that will help them for the rest of their lives,” she said, “so they won’t always need the direct services.”

Over the years, a recurring challenge for the WSCC and other social service advocates has been preventing cuts in the state budget that have a direct impact on the poor.

Sister Sharon is gratified that the WSCC has played a role in reinstating funds for efforts that aid people in need, such as the state’s General Assistance for the Unemployable program.

But “this is not the Catholic Conference working by itself doing these things,” she noted. “Sometimes we take the lead. And sometimes we’re working hand in hand with” others.

Sister Sharon has even enjoyed a modicum of notoriety in her 25 years with the WSCC. While working with the state medical association to bring the provisions of the state’s Natural Death Act more in line with church teaching, she was criticized by a legislator and in a newspaper editorial, which called her “that little nun” being dragged around by people in Gucci shoes and suits. “We all laughed about that,” Sister Sharon said. In fact, her background in biomedical ethics made her more knowledgeable than most on the issue, she said.

The budget, abortion and the death penalty have been among the timeless issues in her 25 years with the WSCC.

The decline in civility by society in general is a more recent phenomenon, she said. She points to the demeaning letters and vocabulary that seem par for the course in today’s Olympia. “People may have been just as angry (two decades ago) but there was a sense of decorum,” she said. “I don’t think yelling and calling names gains us anything. I’m very much an advocate of civil discourse.

“When I hire somebody, the first thing I talk to them about is ‘integrity’ – that we are the Catholic conference, and to the best of our ability we need to live out the Christian values that we say we espouse, and that means we will always act civilly,” she said. “We may adamantly disagree with (someone’s) position, but we don’t demean the person.”

Those who know her say she lives out those standards. And they say her many other strengths include her ability to listen and to interpret complicated issues.

“Sometimes the different bills…don’t make a lot of sense to us because we don’t know the background, the history, the intention, the purpose,” Archbishop Brunett said. “Sister Sharon is a wealth of information; she knows all of these things from the inside and she’s able to explain clearly (the) implications…”

Democrat Rep. Mark Miloscia calls Sister Sharon one of the “most knowledgeable lobbyists about state budget and policy” in Olympia. He says the example she sets for others in living and preaching the values of Jesus.

“However, what makes her especially important to me is that Sister Sharon has been there for me when I needed help or support,” he said. “The state capitol is a very demanding and stressful place with many traps and with many disappointments. With kind words or prayers or deeds, Sister Sharon has cheered me up, given me courage and counsel, and helped me be a better legislator and person.”

Donna Hanson, who has been a member of the WSCC board since its inception, admires Sister Sharon’s thoroughness and ability to be so well-prepared on the issues. She recalls when Sister Park arranged a meeting with the state Department of Social and Health Services to try to prevent the closure of an important children and family center in the diocese. “It was such a crucial meeting, and Sister Sharon was right there with the facts and figures,” Hanson said. “And it ended up making all the difference for…the continuation of the program.”

In her 25 years with the WSCC, Sister Park has served three archbishops and has seen six different faces in the governor’s chair. But she has no plans to retire. She’s happy in Religious life, which has been her calling even since childhood.

“I can remember from first grade on, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I always said I wanted to be a Sister,” she said. “I never wanted to be anything else.”

(This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2005 edition of The Catholic Northwest Progress, published by the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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