I told a friend that I was off to DC this week for the third meeting of the President's Faith Council, and I got a chuckle and a snide comment in return: "So what do you do after meditating together and trading spiritual insights?" he asked.
Hah! The Faith Council feels more like a second job than a self-enrichment group (the fact that our administrative meeting was held on a federal holiday should tell you something). Our task is to offer recommendations on how faith-based and community groups can better partner with the federal government in six distinct areas: poverty reduction, fatherhood and healthy families, environmental issues, interfaith cooperation, global development, and reform of the faith-based office.
The 25 Council Members can choose to be on one or more of the six committees, and many are on two or three. We are joined on these committees by an impressive collection of experts. Take the interfaith cooperation committee: a half-dozen Council member are joined by the likes of the renowned Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, the President of the Islamic Society of North America Ingrid Mattson, the Secretary General of Religions for Peace Bill Vendley, and the religion and public policy expert James Standish.
Shaping recommendations is far harder than it sounds. We want to offer ideas that feel fresh but not far-fetched, that are implementable but still visionary. There can't be too many recommendations because nobody will read them all, but there have to be enough to make a difference on the issues. A whole lot of time this past week was spent reducing the number of recommendations!
There is no across-the-board rule about having full consensus, but there is a good faith effort to hear all the voices around the table and to come up with recommendations that genuinely represent common ground. Take the important discussion over whether the Faith Council should highlight particular international conflicts in our recommendations: say the Middle East, or Latin America. There were voices on both sides, some saying that we shouldn't lift up one or two conflicts, others saying that one conflict or another should have particular resonance for the Council. Jim Wallis offered a way forward: religion is part of the problem in too many conflicts; this Faith Council believes religion needs to be part of the solution, and wants to offer its expertise and understanding to that end. I don't know where we'll come out on this recommendation (lots more work ahead!), but I saw a lot of heads nodding around the table when Jim spoke. At the very least, it's an example of the good faith efforts people are making.
I've learned a great deal from my fellow Council members during casual conversations in hallways, on walks back to the hotel, and during meals. Reverend Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign told me that he felt President Obama's remarks affirming the human dignity and civil rights aspirations of gays and lesbians this past weekend would save lives. "The suicide rate amongst young gays and lesbians is ten times higher than the national average. To know that your President is supportive of who you are is huge for your sense of self-worth." Richard Stearns of World Vision told me that several thousand staff of his massive international Christian development organization are Muslims. I thought it was a fascinating example of an organization with a strong religious identity welcoming in and working side by side with those of another religion on the common goal of helping others. It could be a place from which Evangelicals and Muslims build trust and respect. Joel Hunter, a Florida pastor and global Evangelical leader, described to me how the interfaith program his church helped launch in Orlando during Interfaith Service Week is still going on, the work expanding, the relationships growing.
Our recommendations are going to make a difference, but the respectful relationships we've built may be even more important. It's an example of how people who might have only otherwise met on opposite sides of the picket line at a protest are developing a sense of respect and appreciation for each other while working together. It got me thinking: what if every big city mayor, every state governor, had a religiously diverse faith council (which included leaders of secular organizations, as ours does) that s/he charged with offering recommendations on a set of substantive topics? I bet those recommendations would make a positive impact on policy, but I'm even more confident that those diverse leaders would be a powerful model of cooperation for their own communities and the culture at large.
Perhaps Arturo Chavez of the Mexican American Cultural Center put it best when he said that the members of his committee - on fatherhood and healthy families - had serious disagreements on big issues (like what constitutes a family!). But instead of doing the Cable TV dance - manufacturing enemies and slinging sound bite insults - they did the hard work of finding common ground. "All of us want children to be happy and healthy and supported - that's 95% of what we're about, and we decided to focus our conversation on that 95%."