Editor’s note: Joshua DuBois served as director of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2008 until he stepped down last week.
By Joshua DuBois, Special to CNN
I first heard the name Barack Obama in the summer of 2004 over a half-pound burger and fries on Capitol Hill. I was putting in long hours as a legislative intern for a wily member of Congress between two years of graduate school at Princeton, where I was studying public policy. The pay was meager – enough for gas for my beat-up Chevy Blazer and a tiny Craigslist apartment with two guys and a cat. But it was good to be in Washington and have a few months to wrestle with what in the world I was going to do with the rest of my life.
But by the time my internship was ending in late July, I wasn’t any closer to figuring things out. I knew I loved Christ – I was an associate pastor at a small Pentecostal church back home – and wanted my career to be tied to my faith. I also knew I wanted to help people who were struggling; my grandmother was active in the civil rights movement, and my parents made sure that working for justice and mercy was in my bones. And finally, I knew that I had some serious student loans to pay back. The hard part was figuring out how to balance all three.
Late one day, July 27 to be exact, I walked a couple of blocks to my favorite neighborhood dive, a local spot named the Hawk ‘n’ Dove. There was always a happy hour special going on at the Hawk, and they showed more Red Sox games than Yankees – which, since I’m a Sox fan, was a good thing in my book.
I settled in to enjoy my burger when the place got quiet on me – and the Hawk ‘n’ Dove was never quiet. A man was on television, an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. And this guy was giving quite a speech.
I put my food down and listened. The state senator touched on many themes I loved– themes of justice, of fighting for the vulnerable and sick, of deep love for my country. And then he said, almost out of nowhere: “The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
“We worship an awesome God.”
That line hit me in the gut. This young state senator had reminded me of the songs I had sung at Bible camps growing up, arms upraised: “Our God Is An Awesome God.” He reminded me of long nights, struggles with homelessness and poverty and desperation that I had experienced over the years, and the power of pure worship to shout down life’s loudest dins. He reminded me that the grace I had felt since I became a Christian – felt so fully and so purely – was not relegated to one party or another, to a red state or a blue state, but instead was available to all who sought it. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states.”
I had to work for this guy.
And so, with no inside connections, I set about doing just that. Fortunately for me, Obama and the people around him – folks like Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Denis McDonough, Melody Barnes, Michael Strautmanis, and Chris Lu – valued results more than reputation, and saw the need to engage people of faith in the public square. So they took a shot on me. I am grateful they did, because it has been an amazing ride ever since.
As U.S. Sen. Obama’s adviser on faith issues on Capitol Hill, as candidate Obama’s religious affairs director on his 2008 campaign, and as President Obama’s director of the White House faith-based initiative, I have had the honor of seeing firsthand the life and heart of a president who cares deeply about his country, his family and his God, in times of prayer, conversation and diligent work. I’ve also been able to manage the White House faith-based office, leading a phenomenal team that expanded partnerships with faith-based and nonprofit groups around the country.
Over the last four years, we’ve dealt with our fair share of challenging issues, and played a role in some of the country’s most contentious debates. But more than anything, we’ve been able to marshal and amplify the extraordinary kindness of millions of Americans: religious and secular groups who are putting it on the line every day, expanding opportunity and dignity to those who need help most.
After this amazing journey, I am leaving the White House to serve in a few new ways.
First, with my friends at HarperOne, I am writing a book of daily devotionals based on the meditations I send Obama each morning. I’m honored that the president has said these reflections have been helpful to him, and excited to share a selection of these thoughts with all kinds of leaders around the country.
Second, with Michael Wear, the 2012 Obama campaign religious affairs director, and a few other dear friends, we will soon launch a new social enterprise, Values Partnerships. Values Partnerships will help public, private and nonprofit organizations bring to scale powerful, measurable partnerships with the faith community that solve big challenges, from improving public health to expanding financial literacy to reducing recidivism. We’ll also help leaders in the church and faith-based nonprofits navigate the public square around them, based on our experiences over the years.
Finally, I’m looking forward to teaching, speaking and writing about life at the intersection of religion and politics, particularly focusing on how believers can live their faith powerfully in the world. Through trial and error, I have a few lessons to share on that point, and many still to learn.
Words can’t express the gratitude I feel for a president and first lady who love so deeply and express that love through service, and for a team of current and former officials who have embraced the importance of people of faith in American life.
And as a committed African-American Pentecostal, I never thought I could become such dear friends with so many in the faith community – Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats – who care first about God, and second about their neighbors, and seek to live this care out into the world. I would hope to honor those friendships, continue to serve this good president, and let my life and work be a song of worship in the exciting days ahead.