The first year of the President’s Faith Council is over. It has been the honor of a lifetime. To the new appointees, whoever you may be: I wish you an experience as rich as the one we were blessed to have.
To every city, state and future White House: Consider appointing a council of diverse religious and civic leaders. Charge them with generating, and helping implement, recommendations that strengthen partnerships between their organizations and the government to benefit our society, especially those most in need. Tell them they need to be a model of both substance and civility. And watch them lead the way.
Yesterday, we had the opportunity to present our final report to senior members of the Obama Administration, and to the President himself.
The Rev. Jim Wallis opened his remarks on the poverty section of the Faith Council report by saying: “Part of what we’re here to do is teach the media that finding common ground is sexy.”
No doubt that’s one of the main storylines of the Faith Council: that even in this time of rank partisanship, 25 men and women from different religious backgrounds and political perspectives can put together 60-some substantive recommendations on how the federal government can better partner with faith-based and neighborhood organizations to strengthen our country. Melissa Rogers, a Professor at Wake Forest University and the Chair of the Faith Council, put it best in her introduction: “The Faith Council brought together diverse stakeholders to find common ground so that we can make positive changes for those most in need.”
“Common ground” does not mean lowest common denominator. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism told the President in our meeting with him Tuesday afternoon, “These recommendations, if implemented, can make dramatic improvements in the way the federal government partners with civil society organizations. They can enhance transparency, effectiveness and efficiency.”
With these recommendations, I’m convinced we’ve pointed the car in the right direction, but the rubber really hits the road in the implementation. What was most exciting to me about our meeting yesterday was how prepared everyone around the table was for that next step. In our West Wing meeting with President Obama, he spoke of a new era characterized by partnerships between government and civil society, and pointed to the Faith Council report as a model for that ethos. “One thing I promise you,” the President said, “we will take these recommendations very seriously.”
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “This isn’t a report that’s going to go up on the shelf. This will be an active document with us.” She remarked that her agency was already moving toward implementing some of the recommendations, including creating a new way to measure poverty in America.
And Faith Council members did not speak about our work being over. Instead, we talked about being at the beginning of a new chapter. In fact, Wednesday morning there is an implementation meeting for the recommendations related to interfaith service in the Inter-religious Task Force Report.
In a time where shouting seems to be our preferred manner of communication across differences, it’s worth mentioning a bit about the Faith Council’s process. How did a group of diverse faith and civic leaders agree on 60-plus substantive recommendations? I think there were three key ingredients:
1) We entered with a spirit of service, humility and gratitude – proud to serve our nation and this President in this small way;
2) We identified a value that all of us shared, across faith and political differences: doing what was best for the poor and marginalized in our country and around the world;
3) Whenever a disagreement occurred, we took the time to articulate the areas where we agreed related to that particular issue. We then made the difference as narrow as possible, stating our various sides clearly and boldly, but not letting the disagreement dominate the discussion.
This time last year I thought this kind of collaboration was necessary to help move our county forward. Now I know that it’s possible.