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White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships moves toward final report

Presbyterian minister says group has made progress on poverty, water issues and racial justice

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Jennifer Butler. (Photo provided)

Jennifer Butler. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – For the past nine months the Rev. Jennifer Butler has chaired the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Butler, who served with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations between 1998 and 2005, believes the time has been well spent.

“We have evangelicals, Muslims, people of different genders and political leanings and I would dare say this could be one of the most diverse councils in the history of faith-based councils,” said Butler. “I’m really impressed by the Obama Administration for the wide range of religious groups that they have engaged and worked with through community partnerships.”

The council has tackled a number of issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to poverty, and Butler believes they’re making a difference.

“The council is serving as sort of a model of what this country could be. We’re addressing problems such as economic inequality, lack of opportunity and poverty,” she said. “But one of the things we’ve come away with is the conviction that we can take steps to eliminate poverty. A lot of progress has been made globally and we should be inspired by that in this country.”

Other issues high on the council’s agenda have been racial and criminal justice.

“This has become even more important in the past few weeks and we’ve been calling on the government to really look at the issue of bias and stereotypes that impact our actions and decisions,” said Butler. “We’ve seen the Department of Justice work to educate people and strengthen all government agencies in recognizing racial disparity.”

One of the things Butler was happy to see was the president’s decision to commute prison sentences.

“Often the severity of the punishment didn’t fit the framework of the crime, especially for communities of color,” she said. “So we are very heartened by his actions and believe there is room to do more.”

Butler says the Obama Administration has also been able to drastically reduce veteran poverty and she believes progress can be made when government focuses resources, intelligence and political will on a problem.

But the council has also seen a few roadblocks along the way.

“We were charged with advising the President, but we often wished we had the power to influence Congress to overcome partisanship and work on pragmatic solutions,” she said. “We had a short timeframe in which to figure out how to strengthen and support this administration’s efforts. It was a challenge; but even so we saw how much could happen through partnerships between government and community groups.”

Serving on the council has been a natural progression for Butler who is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life, a strategy center that works to advance faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice and compassion. In addition, she has mobilized religious communities to address the AIDS pandemic, has been an advocate for women’s rights and was a media strategist for the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign led by Sister Simone Campbell.

Other members of the White House advisory council include Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs; the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World; and Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America.

“People have a desire to want to make life better and are relentless in that commitment,” said Butler. “Finding solutions is key. It’s really being able to have the local experience these leaders bring to the table and combine that with the experience of government officials who are working at a whole different level. Bringing those heads together is the art.”

Butler says the council could release its final report within the next two or three months. “We will be releasing our findings publicly and we hope that our discussions will continue to inform future administrations.”

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