At interfaith gathering, director gives update on Obama faith/neighborhood initiatives

Imam Asad Zaman, the Rev. Fr. Marc Boulos, and Sheikh Odeh Muhawesh chatted during the Joshua DuBois reception.
MinnPost photo by Scott Russell
Imam Asad Zaman, the Rev. Fr. Marc Boulos, and Sheikh Odeh Muhawesh chatted during the Joshua DuBois reception.

So a Shia Muslim, a Sunni Muslim and an Orthodox pastor are standing in a Presbyterian Church  …

It sounds like the start of a joke, but the three men were simply waiting to hear Joshua DuBois speak. DuBois is the executive director for President Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He was in town to be interviewed Wednesday evening on Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR’s) Speaking of Faith. Prior to the event, the Minnesota Council of Churches and the St. Paul Foundation held a reception for DuBois at St. Paul’s Central Presbyterian Church (just uphill from MPR) to introduce him to some of the state’s top faith-community leaders.

During the reception, Sheikh Odeh Muhawesh, Imam of Imam Hussain Islamic Center in Brooklyn Center; the Rev. Fr. Marc Boulos, pastor at St. Elizabeth’s Orthodox Mission in Eagan; and Imam Asad Zaman of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota were talking about the importance of not side-stepping difficult religious issues. “That is where the learning is,” Boulos said.

But Muhawesh said he wished someone would do a report comparing the beliefs of  religious traditions. If they could write a 10-volumne set listing all their beliefs, “nine volumes would be things we agreed on,” he said.

There was talk about extending the conversation another day. Boulos suggested meeting at the Holy Land Deli.

The roughly 50 attendees included representatives of the United Church of Christ, the Salvation Army, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Shiloh Temple International Ministries and others. It is the kind of interfaith dialogue the Obama administration seems to want to generate.

Faith-based initiatives with a new twist
At the reception, DuBois spoke a scant eight minutes. But in a short time, he articulated what he saw as the three major differences between how the Obama administration and the Bush administration viewed faith-based partnerships.

The first difference is mission, he said. Under the Bush administration, the office’s mission was “leveling the playing field,” making sure that faith-based groups had access to the levers of federal government and federal funds. “It is not enough just to level the playing field,” DuBois said. “You have to think about what you are going to do on the playing field.”

The Obama administration has four goals to measure its success in this area: Integrating faith-based and neighborhood-based groups into economic recovery work; promoting responsible fatherhood and healthy families; boosting maternal and child health (reducing unintended teenage pregnancy and the need for abortion); and promoting interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

Joshua DuBois outlines key changes from the Bush years
MinnPost photo by Scott Russell
Joshua DuBois outlines key changes from the Bush years.

The second change is outreach to non-Judeo-Christian religious communities and to secular neighborhood organizations, DuBois said. The administration is “throwing the doors of the White House open to folks who quite frankly didn’t hear a lot from the Bush administration,” he said.

Lastly, the new administration is trying to strengthen the legal and constitutional footing for government’s work with faith-based organizations. Obama believes in faith-based partnerships, but at the same time he is a constitutional scholar, DuBois said. The president believes the partnerships need to stay within very specific bounds. “You shouldn’t be using federal funds for any religious purpose,” DuBois said. “You shouldn’t be proselytizing on the federal dime.”

That will need monitoring, he said.

The Minnesota angle
As reported in an earlier post, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and president-elect to the National Council of Churches, was appointed to the newly created President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Chemberlin will work on the Economic Recovery and Domestic Poverty Task Force. Since the first interview, Chemberlin is getting a better idea of the Task Force’s role. (It won’t be making sweeping policy recommendations on ending poverty. Its work will be more focused on such things as advising on the Compassionate Capital Fund.)

Among the initiatives the Minnesota Council of Churches is pursuing itself is something called the Benefit Bank, Chemberlin said. It’s a simple technology that allows low-income people more convenient access to apply for benefits, such as Earned Income Tax Credits or food stamps. Volunteers could run a Benefit Bank in a congregation basement, in a doctor’s waiting room or a library lobby, she said. (Government agencies double-check the electronic applications before they are approved.)

“We know we can probably bring about $300 million into this state in those kinds of benefits if people had access,” Chemberlin said. “And we have known for years that access is an issue.”

Legislative update
On an unrelated note, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits declared victory in passing a nonprofit property-tax exemption bill this session. (For background, click here.) The governor signed HF1298 on Monday, a public finance/tax-policy bill that included language MCN sought.

The tax bill also increased the revenue threshold that triggers nonprofit financial audits, MCN said. The old law required nonprofits with more than $350,000 in revenue to hire an independent audit firm to review and judge their financial position. The threshold hadn’t changed since 1997. Under the new law, nonprofits don’t need to get an independent audit until revenues top $750,000, still one of the nation’s lowest thresholds.

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