Thursday, May 21, 2009

Joshua DuBois Shakes Every Hand in St. Paul

Joshua DuBois looked out at the audience in the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul and asked us to raise first one hand, then another — and move them from side to side. “I told Barak I’d shake every hand in St. Paul,” the 26-year-old director of the revamped office for faith-based programs within the White House said with a smile. His smile was contagious, and the ensuing applause was instantaneous.

It’s a good thing the energy was positive, because our national problems (and indeed world) problems are daunting. Someone whose job is to empower people to tackle them can be a real catalyst for solutions, and Mr. DuBois appears ready to play that role.

Krista Tippett, host of the public radio series “Speaking of Faith,” made sure to ask DuBois what prepared him for the job. He mentioned being a preacher’s kid (his stepfather is an AME minister in Nashville) who started finding his voice through a Pentecostal church in Cambridge while attending Boston University.

The church DuBois attended is called Calvary Praise and Worship Center, and it was the only congregation mentioned by name at the St. Paul event. As a preacher’s kid myself who is married to a Lutheran minister, I would have liked to hear more about the central role congregations play in forming religious identity and creating community.

Mr. DuBois spoke of being deeply moved as a college student by the unjust killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant mistakenly killed by New York City police. Though he did not tell the story himself at the St. Paul event tonight, Time magazine reported earlier this year that DuBois stood before a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Boston for 41 continuous hours in response to the 41 bullets used to kill Mr. Diallo.

In the Obama administration, the office DuBois heads has identified four key priorities:

● Connecting community organizations as part of the president’s economic recovery plan
● Encouraging fathers to be active parents
● Reducing unintended pregnancies
● Engaging in interfaith dialog

The indirect implications of these goals for criminal justice are not difficult to see. It begins with economic recovery because it’s not only in Les Miserables that financial pressure can push people toward crime. Similarly, many people who become offenders have absent, neglectful or abusive fathers, and there are a lot of those in a country where something like forty percent of births are to unwed mothers. This, in turn, ties in with efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and so on.

Interfaith dialog may seem at first glance like a more amorphous notion, but it really isn’t. Obama understands, where Bush did not, that Christians do not have a privileged place in an America that is now highly pluralist. DuBois will help to get the word out that pluralist doesn’t mean relativist. As Americans, we need to come together around our shared values, regardless of our particular religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Obama’s office is therefore reaching out not only to faith groups, but also to secular nonprofits and neighborhood groups, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs.

The theme of dialog leading to productive action was also present in the one criminal justice topic that came up specifically in the conversation between DuBois and Tippett. Ms.Tippett suggested that Americans have become weary of the “culture wars” (abortion, guns and gays). DuBois responded by citing interfaith cooperation on ex-offender reentry as an example of transcendence of the old religious divides.

Tens of thousands of ex-offenders are released every year, often with not much more than the proverbial bus ticket to fall back on. One doesn't need to be a card-carrying Christian, or even a person of religious faith at all, to realize that they need housing, shelter, and employment. Each of us has a role to play in creating communities where those things will be available. Without them, recidivism (repeat offending) is an all-too-common outcome.

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