By Monte Sahlin – As he said he would during the campaign last year, President Obama has retained the "faith-based initiatives" emphasis at the White House, but restructured the organization that he inherited from President Bush. The new unit consists of two parts, where Bush's White House had only one: An Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and a President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council is make its final recommendations in February next year (2010), so it appears that further changes may yet surface. At the same time it is clear that Obama is committed to some kind of working relationship with the nonprofit sector, including the large part of it that is related to religious constituencies.

The key staff person in the White House for this activity is Joshua DuBois, a 27-year-old Evangelical activist who served as Obama's liaison with the religious community during the campaign last year. DuBois was a student at Boston University and associate pastor at the Calvary Praise and Worship Center in Cambridge. This is a neighborhood that I am personally familiar with because in the 1970s, I planted a congregation there and worked in Boston as a community organizer. The congregation is small, not affiliated with any denomination, but Pentecostal in orientation, made up largely of African Americans and for a while, at least, shared space with two other Protestant congregations in Faith Lutheran Church. Pastor DuBois got the church involved with the Ten-Point Coalition, an effort by African American churches in the Boston area to prevent teen violence and gangs run by the National Ten-point Foundation, also located in Boston. DuBois maintains a mentoring relationship with a teen in Boston even as he takes on the very busy schedule of a White House staffer. He chairs the advisory council as part of his job. The other members include:

  • Diane Baillargeon, CEO of Seedco, a New York nonprofit involved in economic development projects. She is a self-described secular member of the council.
  • Anju Bhargava, president of Asian Indian Women in America, an immigrant women's advocacy and help group. She is also a Hindu priest.
  • Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), one of the largest historically African American denominations in America.
  • Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and a well-known Evangelical leader.
  • Arturo Chavez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College and a former prison chaplain who has worked as a community organizer and teacher. He is Catholic.
  • Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and president-elect of the National Council of Churches and a minister in the Moravian Church.
  • Fred Davie, an ordained Presbyterian minister and senior staff member at the Arcus Foundation.
  • Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and a key player in the interfaith coalition that has pushed for religious liberty legislation.
  • Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church, a nondenominational megachurch near Orlando, and a board member for the National Association of Evangelicals (NEA).
  • Harry Knox, a former Methodist pastor who is liaison with religious leaders for the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.
  • Vashti McKenzie, presiding prelate of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Tennessee and Kentucky.
  • Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Poll's Center for Muslim Studies. She was born in Egypt and is a practicing Muslim.
  • Otis Moss, a long-time civil rights leader, retired pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland and a board member for both the M.L. King Centerand Morehouse College.
  • Frank S. Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Taylors First Baptist Church in South Carolina.
  • Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit that recruits young people to participate in interfaith community service. He is a Muslim born in India.
  • Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an attorney and Catholic lay leader.
  • Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, an attorney and president of Reform Jewish congregation in Miami.
  • Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs. She is a lawyer and teaches courses on church-state relations.
  • David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and both a rabbi and an attorney.
  • William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black Protestant denomination, and pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
  • Larry J. Snyder, a priest and president of Catholic Charities, one of the largest nonprofit social service agencies in America.
  • Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; an Evangelical lay leaders with a long background in business before he joined the Christian humanitarian agency.
  • Judith Vredenburgh, CEO of Big Brothers/Sisters of America, the largest youth mentoring nonprofit, and a self-described secular member of the advisory council.
  • Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, and one of the best-known Evangelical social action leaders.
  • Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Protestant denomination.

The president has asked the council to focus on four priorities: (1) connecting faith-based and community groups to economic recovery, (2) promoting interfaith dialog and cooperation in the arena of community service, (3) encouraging responsible fatherhood and healthy families, and (4) reducing unintended pregnancies and the need for abortions, strengthening maternal and child health, and encouraging adoptions.

What does this mean?

President Obama hopes to avoid some of the mistakes of the previous administration, such as trampling long-held notions about the proper line between religion and government, and overly politicizing the involvement of people of faith, while continuing the necessary cooperation between government entities and religious charities which has been a key part of America from its founding. In many ways it is a return to the ideas that Colin Powell presided over in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Presidents' Summit on Community Service. In a time of need in a democracy, elected officials are always going to challenge religious leaders to mobilize their adherents to help out simply because religion advertises itself as being about compassion, love and charity.



Reprinted from with the author's permission. 

Monte Sahlin has worked to understand contemporary trends in our society and to help congregations and faith-based organizations make innovations since he organized ACT while in college at La Sierra University, Riverside, California, in the 1960s. ACT was a student volunteer organization that served in inner city neighborhoods and with suburban teenagers.

He is currently chairman of the board for the Center for Creative Ministry, a research organization and resource center helping pastors, congregations and other organizations understand new generations and how to engage with them. He is also chairman of the executive committee of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry, a "think tank" and training organization based on the campus of Columbia Union College in Washington, DC, as well as an adjunct faculty member at the Campolo School for Social Change at Eastern University in Philadelphia and in the DMin program at Andrews University. In addition, he serves on the steering committee of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a coalition of researchers from more than 40 denominations and faiths who produce the Faith Community Today (FACT) research.

Sahlin is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, currently serving in the Ohio Conference of the denomination. He served for 12 years at the denomination's North American headquarters with responsibilites for church ministries, media projects, social needs and issues, and research and development. He then served eight years as a regional vice president. He has pastored small and large congregations in major metropolitan areas and Appalachia.

He is the author of several books, scores of research studies and hundreds of magazine articles. His most recent book is entitled "Mission in Metropolis." Others currently available are "Ministries of Compassion," "One Minute Witness," "Understanding Your Community," "Trends, Attitudes and Opinions" and "Adventist Congregations Today." In 2005, he coauthored with Harold Lee, "Brad: Visionary, Spiritual Leadership," a history and evaluation of the career of Charles Bradford, the first African American to serve as president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

Sahlin has worked as director, board chairman or strategic consultant with more than 100 innovative, community-based ministries, church plants and nonprofit organizations over the last four decades. In 1994 he was awarded an Outstand Public Service Award by the United States government and in 1996 he participated in the Presidents' Summit on Volunteerism as well as the prepatory gathering of 50 representatives of the nonprofit sector at the White House.


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