|Photo courtesy of EthisDaily.com|
In late January of this year, I received a phone call from Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, informing me of plans underway for a delegation of “Goodwill Baptist” (Parham’s umbrella term for CBF and other Baptist groups that desire to be known what we are for, rather than what we are against, and who seek to share goodwill with our neighbors) leaders to meet with White House officials in our nation’s capital on March 7, 2012. Robert was working with Ricky Creech, executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention (DCBC), to make the arrangements. A written invitation came in early February (along with security clearance forms to be completed and returned), with instructions to retain the confidentiality of the invitation for the moment. Later, we were given permission to share information about the event and I informed the CBFNC Coordinating Council of this possibility during our regular monthly conference call.
The Big Day began with our group of sixty Baptist leaders (mostly pastors, plus a few organizational leaders) meeting in the DCBC Building for a light breakfast and instructions. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what to expect. Most of us were comfortable in religious and non-profit board rooms and speaking before hundreds, or even thousands, but we were obviously nervous about what would be a completely new experience for almost all of us.
We boarded a charter bus and were deposited beside a chain link fence where we went through the first of two security checkpoints. After being allowed to pass through the gate, we came before a huge set of steps leading up to what we learned was the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (located next the West Wing) which houses a majority of offices for White House staff. Turns out, when you visit the White House for most business with officials of the Executive Branch of our federal government, you don’t go to the White House at all, but the Eisenhower Building! After climbing the exterior steps, we entered the vestibule of the building, went through another security checkpoint, were issued badges, and then were instructed to climb more stairs to the fourth floor to a specified conference room and wait until the meeting began.
Our visit was arranged, coordinated and led by Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement. Our meeting resulted from the cultivation of a relationship between Monteiro and Creech. After opening words from Creech, Parham and Monteiro, the bulk of our three hour block of time followed a common sequence. First, we were “briefed” by a representative of numerous Administration offices or departments who work on issues Monteiro believed would be of interest to Baptist leaders. After these presentations, our group was given a few minutes to ask questions or make comments. Then another Administration official would come in and the cycle would repeat itself. The ratio of our listening to the officials to our responding to the officials was about 3:1, so only a small minority of our group had a chance to speak.
The topics on which were briefed included human trafficking, the environment, the Hispanic community, consumer financial protection, immigration, emergency disaster response, and the mortgage crisis. Many of those making presentations were the persons in their respective offices or departments who had responsibilities for relating to faith-based communities. A powerful moment for me came when, after the briefing on immigration, Parham presented Felicia Escobar, Senior Policy Advisor, with a copy of the new Common English Bible, which translates the Hebrew word, “ger,” as immigrant (other versions of the Bible use words like alien, foreigner, sojourner or stranger).
First, not only is a visit to the “White House” not a visit to where the First Family lives, it rarely includes the President of the United States (he was in North Carolina that day). Some in our group were disappointed that we didn’t get to meet the president, though I never thought that was very likely.
Second, the Obama administration, building on the groundwork laid by the Bush administration, is taking very seriously their engagement with faith-based communities. I learned that the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships actually coordinates 12 Federal Centers for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which forms partnerships between a federal agency and faith-based and neighborhood organizations to advance specific goals, connecting that agency to the community at the most grassroots level
Third, while it was somewhat disappointing that our exchange focused more on programs rather than policies, and we had little opportunity to address the moral or social aspects of issues important to our Baptist faith communities, the presentations did help us learn about specific ways the federal government is trying to address real human needs that are critical to our communities.
Fourth, our visit to the White House put a human face on our federal government. Before, government “bureaucrats” were nameless, faceless functionaries with whom I had no relationship, and I would never have thought to contact them. Now, I see them as real people who have a real desire to serve others. I would not hesitate to contact the officials we met or others like them, to solicit their help or share my opinions about important issues. We were given contact information for all those we encountered, and upon returning from my trip, I visited the White House website to learn more about the various agencies and those who staff them. Now, I will definitely communicate with the appropriate White House offices if the need arises.
Finally, as a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I am still somewhat uncomfortable relating to government officials, especially politically appointees. However (and my “duplicity rader” was on full power), I never felt as if those who spoke to us were being disingenuous or using us for political advantage. They all seemed to be genuine public servants with a sincere desire to make a positive difference in our nation and world.
If nothing else, after visiting the highest levels of the greatest kingdom on earth, I’m in a much better position to pray not only for these specific leaders, but also to pray as Jesus instructed, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”