Inside the White House Conference on Faith-Based Initiatives: Minnesota Nice


First of two parts on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Minneapolis conference.

The White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Minneapolis Hyatt Regency on Thursday was only the second state-organized conference (the first being in Arizona) since the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created by executive order in 2001.

The conference was definitely a federal event. Everyone was asked for identification. I was asked three times. Men in suits with earpieces surrounded the registration area.

Inside the conference, the official message was that government partnering with faith-based services can make America a better place. Unofficially, the message was apologetic and sometimes persecutive. Faith-based groups have been discriminated against in receiving grant money, many argued. The initiative is a way to “level the playing field.”

Many presenters pointed to “Minnesota Nice” as the ideal of the initiative, and the recent bridge collapse became a narrative for how faith-based groups and government can work together, particularly in Minnesota.

Inside the main ballroom, attendees awaited a lengthy agenda of presentations. The director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Department of Labor, Jedd Medefind, welcomed the crowd with opening remarks and introduced Christopher Morton, director of the Minnesota Council of Churches. “We always start our conferences with a prayer. We’ve had representatives from a variety of faiths pray,” Medefind told the audience as Morton took the stage. That defensive speech, as well as an apologetic tone, would color many of the religious elements of the conference.

Following the non-denominational prayer, a presentation of the colors by the Minnesota National Guard followed, with youth vocal group 4Given Ministries International singing the national anthem. “Technical difficulties” prevented the showing of a video introduction by President Bush, how about that was intended to follow the national anthem.

WHOFBCI Director Jay Hein spoke about barriers to religious organizations partnering with government and said that the faith-based initiatives office is intended to break down those barriers. A theme of inequality ran throughout the conference. “When President Bush took office we identified that there were barriers to the religious parts of the sector in getting grant funds,” Hein said. “That all changed with the creation of the WHOFBCI.

Hein also related his thoughts on Minnesota Nice, with a Powerpoint slide devoted to the subject. “Minnesota Nice is the way we solve problems. It’s who we are as a people. It’s definitely who you are as a people.” A few moments later, Hein presented Minnesotan Bob Dingley with the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Dingley, 74, has spent years as a senior companion to veterans in their 80s and 90s.

Next, Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota Army National Guard, spoke of Minnesota Nice, “So I ask the question: Minnesota Nice is great, but is Minnesota Nice enough? That’s my concern.” He spoke about Minnesota troops serving longer than troops from anywhere else in the country and introduced Gene Sit, founder of the Minnesota Military Appreciation Fund, a group that provides “all returning soldiers with a cash award.”

He then introduced Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “If you have not met our governor, he has been a war-time commander, he’s been a state leader, he’s been very influential on a national level at shaping national policy.” Shellito accidentally called Pawlenty “our president” at first, a flub that garnered laughter and then prolonged applause from the crowd.

Gov. Pawlenty began by reading from the Book of Isaiah. He then spoke of the selfless acts of many Minnesotans, or Minnesota Nice, during the 35W bridge collapse.

“Through this catastrophe shines through goodness. Goodness through first responders, emergency workers, fire and rescue workers and everyday citizens. Instead of running away from danger, their first instinct was to run toward it to help others. We always talk about the Minnesota Nice. I don’t think that goodness is detached from everything else. It’s not goodness without a foundation. It’s not goodness untethered from some principles or pillars. It’s not goodness in a vacuum. I think goodness in my belief system comes from God, and I am not embarrassed to say that.”

Pawlenty then presented seven Minnesota charities with the Minnesota Faith and Community Service Initiative’s Best Practices Awards.

Following Pawlenty’s presentation, attendees were treated to presentations on developing a grant proposal for the federal government, best practices for volunteerism, a panel discussion about securing funds in the private secto, and a legal do’s and don’t’s for religious organizations using federal money. A look at how the government trains religious groups to balance the constitutional responsibilities of receiving federal money will be explored in Part II of “Inside the White House Conference on Faith-Based Initiatives.”

Bringing Everyone to the Table

Well more than a thousand people were seated in the banquet hall for the morning’s ceremonies, and the attendees were a diverse crowd, not at all reflecting the Caucasian Lutheranism that comes to mind when thinking of a statewide gathering of faith-based social service workers. I asked conference organizer Lee Buckley, who is the governor’s special adviser on Faith and Community Service Initiatives, what strategies were employed in generating a large, diverse audience for the conference.

“The first outreach strategy I used was our database of all the places of worship in the state, and I used every organization that I collaborate with in the state, including the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, the Minnesota Council of Churches. I sent it out to all the commissioners, the commissioners of the counties. The feds sent the information out to their grantees. We also worked with CUNA [Congregations United for Neighborhood Action], the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. It’s all just networks. I’m very happy to see the diversity. That doesn’t happen a lot.”

But there were some challenges in partnering with the White House.

“With our workshop topics and workshop presenters, we had a unique opportunity to have presenters — state and local level. I really insisted that on the state and local level we also utilized folks from diverse communities. That was a key strategy that I had to fight for with the White House, especially since this was only the second time the White House has partnered with state government.”

Buckley said that for previous conferences that were not in partnership with the hosting state, the White House would simply drop in with everything set up and ready to go, without a great deal of input on a local level.