At 26, Joshua DuBois has already rubbed shoulders with more religious leaders than most religious leaders will in their lifetime.
And he's starting to do a lot more of the same as President Obama's director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
He'll be rubbing shoulders with the President, too. In fact, nearly everyone who knows DuBois believes he holds a special bond with the new President, an asset previous directors of the office say will be vital in order for his priorities to gain any attention.
During the campaign, DuBois put together a daily devotional for Obama, using passages of Scripture and other religious books. Now he's helping him choose a church home in Washington, D.C.
On his first day in office, Obama was ushered to a prayer service at the National Cathedral, where clergy, including Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, greeted the new President in private.
"Katharine is very formal in a good Episcopalian way," said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. "She has this staff, like a crosier, a big ornate thing. Obama looks at the staff, and playfully says, 'Joshua, I want one of those.' "
That interaction demonstrated to Granberg-Michaelson that Obama and DuBois share a comfortable, close friendship. And if evangelicals want to have a voice in the new administration, DuBois is their window, said Granberg-Michaelson. "He has a tremendous amount of trust and relationships that span the theological spectrum."
DuBois speaks openly about faith without going into many details. He's quick to clarify that, because of his new role, he wants to welcome all faiths. When asked whether he describes himself as an evangelical, he didn't directly respond. "In my role with the federal government," he explained, "I try to be clear that I'm not ashamed of my faith, but I try not to get into too many labels."
Similarly, those who know him say that DuBois avoids the traditional religious dividing lines in his work as he meets with conservative organizations like the Family Research Council and liberal groups like Faith in Public Life. "He's not interested in the old ways in which we've sliced and diced communities," said Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and a member of the office's advisory council.
DuBois has also built relationships with people not known for political advocacy, such as Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller and Relevant magazine founder Cameron Strang.
"If you want to appeal to conservative evangelicals, you don't necessarily go to an organization," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. "You think in terms of individuals instead of institutional leadership. That's part of the makeup of the coming generation of evangelicals."
During the campaign, DuBois met repeatedly with Hunter and other religious leaders from all over the country. He met with Granberg-Michaelson at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
"We talked about how I worked with a Christian senator, Mark Hatfield, how a church relates to the issues of political power, and how those in politics relate to those in the Christian community," Granberg-Michaelson said. "We just had an awful lot in common and a lot to talk about. In the 2004 election, the job of Democratic religious outreach often seemed like being a tourism director for Gary, Indiana."
A Family of Faith
DuBois grew up in Nashville, where his stepfather is a minister in an African Methodist Episcopal church. DuBois grew up listening to stories of his grandmother being spat on when she participated in the 1960 Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. "I've been proud of my family and their history and speaking up for what they think is right," he said. "But we are not a family of radicals. In fact, I probably listened to much more Focus on the Family than Pacifica Radio.
"I probably had many dreams as a kid of living in Whit's End," DuBois said, referring to the Focus show Adventures in Odyssey. "I used to have Psalty the Songbook tapes. Those were my favorite songs."
But even though DuBois grew up in a Christian home, he said it wasn't until attending Boston University that he began to have a personal relationship with Jesus. "Maybe there are some preachers' kids who had a similar experience, maybe because I was so close to the church in some ways, I was further away from it. Maybe I thought I knew everything," he said. "It really took me leaving home to realize that something was missing in my life."
Eugene Schneeberg, DuBois' college friend and prayer partner to this day, invited him to Calvary Praise and Worship Center, a small African American Pentecostal congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just two years later, DuBois became the church's associate pastor. (He also still preaches in his father's pulpit on occasion.) Warren F. Collins, pastor of the church, was startled when DuBois showed up to preach one Sunday in a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants. His nerves calmed as DuBois used his outfit as a sermon illustration, removing his sweats to reveal a suit underneath. "He was showing that you can't judge a person by how they look initially. If you hold on to a person, they will evolve into what is expected of them," Collins said. "The one thing I always say about Joshua is that he is wise beyond his years."
DuBois also recently preached from the Book of Job about getting through trials.
"When my mom and biological father divorced, she was left pretty destitute and we spent some time not having a place to live. Seeing her fortitude in that period has always provided me with strength," DuBois said. "Trying to get through political challenges in the White House is nothing compared to a single mom with a young kid trying to get a roof over her family's head."
Like the President, DuBois is still looking for a permanent church home in Washington. He has been attending National Community Church, whose congregation of mostly 20-somethings meet in several movie theaters in the District. The church, pastored by Mark Batterson, is aligned with the Assemblies of God, the Willow Creek Association, and the Mosaic Alliance—which may be ideal for someone who is constantly trying to reach out to many denominations.
A Political Career Emerges
During DuBois' freshman year, a jury in New York acquitted four police officers whose 41 bullets had killed unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. DuBois joined the protests, holding a sign inscribed with "No More" at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Boston for 41 hours.
"As with many teenagers, I didn't give a tremendous amount of thought to anything spiritual or political before college," DuBois said. "It was something that kind of shook me a little and got me thinking about my relationship with the wider world."
DuBois graduated from Boston U. in 2003 with a degree in political science and worked for Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) while earning a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton.
Shortly before starting his law degree at Georgetown, DuBois saw Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He was struck in particular by the line, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."
It took him three tries before he was hired by Obama's Senate office. But once involved in Obama's presidential campaign, he gained a reputation for coordinating religious outreach, from the Saddleback Civil Forum to a small Chicago gathering with several dozen evangelicals, including Strang from Relevant.
"He has the perfect hybrid of experience," Strang said. "He has the relationships to get things done, and he has the pastoral experience to understand how a church works."
Despite his rapport with the President, it's unclear how much access DuBois has.
"It'll be interesting to see how much attention it gets," said John Bridgeland, who served as Bush's director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, which oversaw the previous faith-based office. "The office is most active and gets the most presidential attention when people have direct access to the President."
The first two directors of the office under Bush reported directly to the President, but DuBois will report to Melody Barnes, who now oversees the White House Domestic Policy Council. Barnes said that having that office in her council will keep it from becoming segregated.
"The President knows Joshua well and respects his work. That will mean that we have robust activity going on in this office," Barnes said. "Having the relationships with people in the community, understanding the issues, and having the trust of the President make him a very important person."
Barnes said that faith has always played a large role in her own life, so she takes a special interest in the new office. When asked about criticism of the office, she responded, "They will know us by the work that we do."
DuBois defends the office by saying much of its work will be behind the scenes.
"Our job is to communicate the opportunities and to provide technical assistance, like how to write a good application," DuBois said. "We're not necessarily having a press conference every time we move forward."
Some observers criticize Obama for hiring someone from his political campaign rather than someone with experience in social policy.
"Can you imagine the uproar if President Bush had appointed an evangelical pastor to the faith-based initiative?" asked Jim Towey, a former director of the office.
Towey said he's concerned about how issues will be handled on a case-by-case basis, how the office will be able to tackle such a large agenda, and how DuBois will balance his time working with several federal agencies while handling a new advisory council.
"I think President Obama gets credit for not sticking the faith-based initiative in the Smithsonian," Towey said. "Josh will always be able to get the President's ear, just by the force of his friendship, it seems. The challenge for him will be to produce results."
Sarah Pulliam is online editor for Christianity Today and oversees the CT Politics blog.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This article was published today with "Pressure to Prove Himself."
Other articles on the faith-based initiatives include:
Obama Expands Faith-Based Office | The President maintains Bush's hiring policy and shapes specific priorities for the office. (February 6, 2009)
New Director Offers Vision for Faith-Based Office | Joshua DuBois tells CT how the new Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is different from the Bush administration's office. (February 6, 2009)
A Promising Start for Obama's Faith-Based Office | Why we are encouraged — and still have a major concern. (February 9, 2009)
Purging the Faith from 'Faith-Based' | The first detailed history of President Bush's initiative to help the poor.
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