On all things religious, Obama turns to DuBois

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WASHINGTON — From a sparsely adorned office building a stone’s throw from the White House, Joshua DuBois carefully navigates the delicate line between church and state.

Each morning, he sends a devotional message to President Obama’s BlackBerry. He appears before religious and community groups to explain his role as director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and, in turn, relays their concerns to administration officials. In the course of any given day, he’ll receive as many as 750 e-mails from religious leaders, reporters and government officials.

But in the midst of all the political juggling, the 26-year-old preacher’s kid remains a person of faith who quotes from favorite hymns — “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one. The Bible, too, serves as inspiration.

“I’m often inspired by the grass-roots nature of Acts and the early church,” he said in a recent interview, “and what they were able to build from virtually nothing.”

To some extent, DuBois is doing just that with the faith-based office, which Obama inherited from former President George W. Bush, but revamped in a bid to expand its focus, depoliticize the grant-making process and tamp down church-state concerns.

DuBois, a veteran of Obama’s Senate office who oversaw religious outreach for his presidential campaign, is a distinct contrast from the Republican appointees who preceded him, including the policy wonk John DiIulio, who opened the office in 2001, or Jim Towey, a former lawyer for Mother Teresa, or the cerebral Jay Hein.

Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church by his mother and stepfather, a minister in Nashville, Tenn., DuBois became an associate pastor of the Calvary Praise and Worship Center, a small, African-American Pentecostal church in Cambridge, Mass., while still an undergraduate at Boston University.

“I am very clear about the fact that I am a committed Christian and my faith is important to me; it’s a central part of my life,” he said. “At the same time, I am now in a role in this office where I’m called to reach out to Americans of all different religious backgrounds and folks who don’t adhere to a particular religion.”

In Washington, DuBois attends a nondenominational church that worships in a rented movie theater. He still maintains ties to the Cambridge church and to Boston, where he worked with the National TenPoint Leadership Foundation, which encouraged black churches to aid at-risk, inner-city youth.

“Josh was very serious and very smart and was very concerned … as an undergraduate in trying to connect faith to issues of public policy,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a co-founder of the foundation and a prominent black Pentecostal leader.

In a May interview with radio host Krista Tippett in St. Paul, Minn., DuBois talked about his awakening in 1999 when New York police officers were acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

“It shook in me a sense that I needed to connect to something larger, to understand all the nuances in the world, both in terms of politics and also in terms of religion,” he told Tippett’s “Speaking of Faith” program.

“So that’s when I found my church and my faith and also started my political path as well.”

That political path is taking shape as his office helps craft Obama’s key speeches on religion — Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, Islam at Cairo University, for example. His office also works with various federal agencies on issues ranging from disaster preparation to the upcoming 2010 census.

Though he doesn’t dwell on his relative youth, he said he realizes the weighty responsibilities given to someone who hasn’t even reached 30 yet. “I think one of the most important things is to know what you don’t know,” he said.

In his talks to various religious groups, DuBois outlines the office’s four-point focus on economic recovery, abortion reduction, responsible fatherhood and interfaith relations. He’s met with evangelicals, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, as well as secularists who think his office shouldn’t exist.

Religious leaders, including members of the office’s advisory council, say DuBois, like the president, is a good listener who seeks to find common ground among disparate voices and views.

Leah Daughtry, a Pentecostal minister who until recently was the chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee, sees DuBois’ Pentecostal background informing his work.

“I feel that the kind of work that he’s doing in reaching out to people across political spectrums, across ideological perspectives, across theological perspectives, really can only be done if you’re Spirit-led,” she said. “Because it’s the same spirit of Christ that sought to reach beyond the confines of his own people.”

While DuBois’ day job is heading up the faith-based office, he also carries another title: special assistant to the president, which includes the daily presidential meditations as well as helping the first family find a church home in Washington.

Some people who have known DuBois say his workload can cause him to be disorganized and unresponsive, although they declined to have their names attached publicly to their criticisms. For his part, DuBois says he’s doing the best he can.

“We’re a federal entity that’s coordinating 11 offices with pretty key priorities. … I try to be as responsive as I can, along with my staff and others here at the White House. But there are always going to be some challenges in that regard.”

Daughtry joked that DuBois — who also finds time to be a Big Brother to a Boston teenager and keep up a five-year relationship with his girlfriend — has made a bargain of sorts with God to manage his busy schedule.

“He’s attached to that cell phone like it’s another appendage,” she said. “I’m convinced he’s got some deal with God to give him a couple of extra hours a day.”