By Michelle Boorstein
Who knows how long it will last, but there’s a love fest underway today on Pennsylvania Avenue involving the White House and dozens of faith leaders.
The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, whose mission is to empower religious and secular groups that provide social services, is hosting more than 60 people it considers key leaders at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a meeting that began last night and runs through this evening.
Invited guests include the 25 members of the president’s advisory council and a few dozen more insiders (almost all from faith-based groups), including people President Obama has turned to since he became a candidate for guidance on everything from torture ethics to Catholic politics to inner-city fatherhood programs.
They included the heads of massive social service groups like Church World Service and Catholic Charities as well as ministers who are close advisors to Obama, like renowned civil rights activist Otis Moss Jr., progressive movement leader Jim Wallis and Derrick Harkins of Washington’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Church-state experts were also there, including Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest University and Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
The gathering is the first since all 25 council members were named – the final 10 members’ names were released yesterday – and is really the office’s first big roll-out to faith-based and other groups who are watching it carefully. Top White House officials from departments focusing on urban affairs, domestic poverty and the budget spoke to the group last night and repeatedly emphasized that they want to partner with the groups, many who felt shut out by the Bush White House. Many speakers were effusive with praise for the office and Obama for what they called his effort to communicate and include them. They seemed wowed that top officials from key domestic policy groups were making time to seek their input on programming.
But even in brief questions, many made clear that they are concerned that their issues will get shoved aside in the economic crisis, and that federal money meant to support their programs – or programs like theirs, for the poor – will get diverted by state and local governments.
“I’m worried that local politics will scuttle a really great effort,” said Sister Simone Campbell, coordinator of the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK.
Joshua Dubois, executive director of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office, seemed to be working hard to lower expectations.
“We here at this office don’t control any money, and thankfully so,” he said.
Dubois tried instead to differentiate the office from the one created by Bush – which was frequently criticized during the Bush years by those on the left as an unconstitutional and inappropriate merging of church and state. Some conservatives have noted wryly the lack of major liberal criticism of Obama for expanding the office and often using overtly religious language and prayer as a candidate and in office.
The Obama office, Dubois said, is focused not on giving better and more access and money to faith-based groups but on including them in furthering specific goals, including environmental health, boosting fathers and reducing unintended pregnancies. Dubois said the office’s success in four years won’t be measured by how much money faith-based and other neighborhood groups get or how much access to the White House, but how much those goals improved. Some participants wondered how that would be measured.
Here is the full list of the president’s advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood issues. Each is appointed to a one-year term.
_ Diane Baillargeon , President & CEO, Seedco
_ Anju Bhargava, Founder, Asian Indian Women of America
_ Bishop Charles Blake, Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ
_ Noel Castellanos , CEO, Christian Community Development Association
_ Rev. Peg Chemberlin , President-Elect, National Council of Churches USA
_ Dr. Arturo Chavez , President & CEO, Mexican American Catholic College
_ Fred Davie , Senior Adviser, Public/Private Ventures
_ Nathan Diament , Director of Public Policy, Orthodox Jewish Union
_ Pastor Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, a Church Distributed
_ Harry Knox, Director, Religion and Faith Program, Human Rights Campaign
_ Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie , Presiding Bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church
_ Dalia Mogahed , Executive Director, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies
_ Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. , Pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church
_ Dr. Frank S. Page , President emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention
_ Eboo S. Patel , Founder & Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core
_ Anthony Picarello, General Counsel , United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
_ Nancy Ratzan, Board Chair, National Council of Jewish Women
_ Melissa Rogers , Director, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs
_ Rabbi David N. Saperstein , Director & Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
_ Dr. William J. Shaw , President, National Baptist Convention, USA
_ Father Larry J. Snyder , President, Catholic Charities USA
_ Richard Stearns , President, World Vision
_ Judith N. Vredenburgh , President and Chief Executive Officer, Big Brothers / Big Sisters of America
_ Rev. Jim Wallis , President & Executive Director, Sojourners
_ Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President, Disciples of Christ (Christian Church)