Swan Song or New Beginning?
Faith-Based Initiatives Faces Uncertain Future
BY Robert Kumpel
November 16-22, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/11/08 at 12:29 PM
Jedd Medefind is the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
One of the questions facing the Obama administration is: What will he do with the faith-based initiatives office? Interviewed just before the presidential election, Medefind declined to speculate on what Obama would do with the office. But he said the accomplishments of the office need to be told, either for the sake of its future, or for the record.
A former communications director for the California State Legislature, he is the coauthor of Four Souls about community and faith, which he wrote with three friends based on their world travels. Although he was raised Presbyterian, Medefind, like many Americans, prefers to say he is “just a Christian.”
He recently discussed his views on life’s priorities and the transitional nature of government service with Register correspondent Robert Kumpel.
I’ve read that you’ve visited 25 countries. How did that happen?
I attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara. When I graduated, I wanted to go to law school and was accepted at the University of Virginia, but I talked to a lot of folks who had been down that road for five or 10 years. It seemed like there was no longer any spark in their eyes for the work they were doing. They seemed to have much less purpose for the work they were doing than what I wanted to live with through life.
Thankfully, I had three close friends graduating at the same time, and each of us wanted to live our lives fully in our faith and in a meaningful way. So I put grad school on hold and spent a year living with people in different parts of the world who were really serving their neighbors in very powerful ways. We lived with these folks and learned from them.
We were in Guatemala, Russia, Bangladesh and Southern Africa, Vietnam. That experience was shaping for us in a lot of ways, including the responsibility that comes with American wealth and the profound needs of the world.
You must have had some serious culture shock experiences.
In Thailand I remember ordering some chicken soup and finding out it was made from chicken blood! But cultural learnings are a lot deeper than that most of the time.
I feel like deep down most people yearn to live for something larger than themselves but don’t feel like there is anything, so they settle for comfort or climbing the ladder.
How did you end up with the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives?
I worked in the California State Legislature for many years as a chief of staff to a member there and in other roles, as well. During that time, I had a real desire to bring together the strength that government has with groups who are on the front lines, solving problems every day.
I had seen that big government welfare programs were created with good intentions, but [they] often create a dependency and drain dignity. My Christian faith teaches me that every individual is of immeasurable worth. No matter how broken a life may appear, it’s worth any effort to go back to the rescue.
I decided that the welfare state without a positive vision for addressing needs wasn’t acceptable. The president’s vision for the Faith-Based Community Initiative really inspired me, because the goal here is to change the way that government addresses human need. We want to shift away from the traditional approach of large bureaucratic programs instead of focusing on local organizations that bring a creativity and a passion and a personal touch that the government can’t bring on its own.
There’s an office in the White House that’s the hub for the initiative with centers in the major federal agencies. So there’s a center for faith-based initiatives in the Department of Justice and the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. I came out from California three years ago to lead the center at the Department of Labor, which focuses on job training, welfare to work, prisoner reentry — helping to overcome poverty with jobs.
There was an individual who was a speech writer in the Department of Labor who was familiar with my work in California, not just in the legislature, but also helping lead a nonprofit called the California Community Renewal Project. They were looking for someone who understood how government works and at the same time had engaged human need.
They brought me out to interview for the position and hired me to lead at the Department of Labor. After working there for a year and a half, I was asked to come over and be the deputy director for the initiative here in the White House. Then, just a couple of months ago, I was promoted to acting director.
Do you meet frequently with the president?
We have annual meetings, but we’ll meet at other times when necessary. I spend a lot more time with the chief of staff.
Will your office still exist under an Obama administration?
The next president will have a choice of how fully and aggressively he wants to continue this work. Both candidates indicated that they intend to continue it. It’s really not designed as a program so much as a reform effort within government.
We’re just really pouring ourselves into this work until the last day that we’re here.
The next president will probably bring his own people, and that’s a healthy element of the American system: to bring in new energy and vision. We’ve tried to provide a tremendous array of tools and models that have proven themselves effective, and our hope is that whoever comes next will build on it to make an even greater difference in lives across the country and around the world.
Robert Kumpel is based
in Valdosta, Georgia.
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