Nicholas D. SawickiMarch 16, 2021
Melissa Rogers is seen at The Catholic University of America in Washington April 28, 2015. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

From day one of the Biden administration, there has been public tension between a number of U.S. Catholic leaders and the country’s second Catholic president. On Inauguration Day, Archbishop José H. Gomez, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to the president that laid out areas of common ground but included strong criticism of Mr. Biden’s support for “policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity.”

Despite this seeming rift, Melissa Rogers, Mr. Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is confident the administration will be able to work closely with the bishops.

“Our office has a strong relationship with the Catholic Church,” Ms. Rogers told America in a phone interview. “There are a variety of Catholic institutions and individuals that we are engaged with. As we get our offices up and running, we are making sure that we are in very close contact with Catholic institutions across the board and with Catholic leaders because that has always been a strong part of the partnership’s office work and we want to make sure that’s true moving forward.”

Melissa Rogers, Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is confident the administration will be able to work closely with the bishops.

It has been just over 20 years since President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office was left dormant under the Trump administration, but on Feb. 14, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14015, effectively re-establishing the office.

“We have had a really strong relationship with the U.S.C.C.B. and others,” Ms. Rogers said. “Sometimes there will be differences and both sides acknowledge that, but there is so much that we agree on.... We are really focusing on those areas of agreement and finding that we are having productive conversations, relationships and partnerships already in a lot of spaces.”

The Catholic Church, of course, is just one of many religious communities the office will partner with, as Ms. Rogers, who is a member of the Baptist church and served as the last executive director of this same office under the Obama administration, knows well.

Ms. Rogers said her past experience will allow her to hit the ground running and noted that it helps that the tone of her work is coming from the top. “In the past, I have worked with President Biden…and knowing him and knowing his deep connection with faith and neighborhood leaders is so helpful,” Ms. Rogers said. “In addition, I have had the experience of being in meetings with him with faith and community leaders and seeing how he engages them, and the relationships that he has formed and the priority that he puts on serving people in need.”

“We have had a really strong relationship with the U.S.C.C.B. and others. Sometimes there will be differences and both sides acknowledge that, but there is so much that we agree on.”

Ms. Rogers underscored just how important it is to leverage every partnership and opportunity to meet the struggles facing millions of Americans. “We are facing big challenges,” said Ms. Rogers, including “the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic challenges connected to that, the challenges of a warming planet and challenges of systemic racism.”

On top of these specific challenges, Ms. Rogers highlighted one of the key ideological challenges facing the United States today. “Another challenge that we are facing is deep polarization in the country. The president and the vice president know that a great way to help combat that polarization and to build more unity is to have more people working together to serve their neighbors.”

“We find that this is a sweet spot for people,” she continued, “whether they are Democrat or Republican, whatever their politics or ideology, that they want to serve their neighbors and those that are getting hit hardest by these challenges.” Ms. Rogers sees the office as not only helping to combat the current crises facing the nation “but also forming relationships with faith and community leaders who may have voted differently, may have different beliefs about policy issues, but who all agree on serving people in need.”

“We have seen tremendous enthusiasm across backgrounds and beliefs for making sure that we get more shots in arms with the vaccine and spreading the word about the facts about the vaccine,” noted Ms. Rogers.

Ms. Rogers underscored just how important it is to leverage every partnership and opportunity to meet the struggles facing millions of Americans.

Faith leaders across the country, according to Ms. Rogers, have stepped up in the fight against Covid-19. “We have seen people in houses of worship provide physical spaces for vaccinations to take place. We have seen faith leaders release videos of themselves getting the vaccine and talking to their congregations about it. We have seen efforts by various faith and community leaders to reach underserved populations and to make sure that people who might have a hesitancy about the vaccine get the facts from people they trust in their community,” said Ms. Rogers.

According to Ms. Rogers, communication between her office and faith-based and neighborhood organizations is a two-way street. “We are having meetings with a range of different people from various faiths and beliefs, and we are reaching out to conservative-leaning people and progressive-leaning people. People who may not have engaged with the government for the past four years.”

“We are throwing the doors wide open and saying we want to talk to you,” she said.

In an effort to hear the needs and concerns of Americans across the country, the office is conducting listening sessions. Ms. Rogers said that the goal of the listening sessions is “to understand what their experiences have been, to understand the challenges that they are facing and to better understand the ways that they would like to work with the government to improve their neighborhoods and the country as a whole.”

“We are having meetings with a range of different people from various faiths and beliefs, and we are reaching out to conservative-leaning people and progressive-leaning people.”

One of the fruits of listening to faith and community leaders has been informing the administration on how to best approach the vaccination process. “Faith leaders have already been vocal about their concern over equitable access, and we are absolutely allied in regards to our interests in making that happen.”

Ms. Rogers sees the work of the office as supporting and connecting with organizations that have done an immense amount of work trying to serve their communities over the past twelve months. “We see faith and community leaders have done backflips over the last year to make sure that people don’t experience suffering or that any additional suffering is avoided,” Ms. Rogers said. “We have seen food banks and other organizations that serve people in emergency situations really take their efforts to a whole new level.”

In communicating with these groups and building a coalition of support through the office, Ms. Rogers noted that the message to these organizations is simple. “What we have been saying to people is, first and foremost, thank you. Thank you for stepping into the gap of great need and helping people keep life and limb and livelihoods together during this crisis and, secondly, how can we work with you to make sure that we lift people out of these difficult places and help them to rebuild their lives?”

The office has also been a source of information for faith and neighborhood organizations on President Biden’s economic package to address the ongoing pandemic and economic downturn. “We’ve played a role in making sure that people understand the benefits of the American Rescue Plan,” said Ms. Rogers. “One thing in particular is the Circle of Protection effort, which is working very hard on the American Rescue Plan. One of the things that they are doing right now is collecting stories of where people have had specific struggles over the last year or so and connecting it to the ways the plan will help those people.”

“We want to partner with anybody who is interested in serving with Americans who have struggles and needs,” said Ms. Rogers.

Some may express concerns about the executive branch working so closely with faith-based organizations. This is not a new issue, having been recently litigated under the Bush administration in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the office works closely with any willing and collaborative religious organizations on a wide variety of projects—not favoring one religious tradition over another, nor providing disproportionate access or funding outside of the office’s mandate to any particular faith tradition.

“We define the communities with which we engage very broadly,” stated Ms. Rogers. “We work with faith community organizations that everybody knows as well as organizations that are new that might have sprung up in the last few years, that collect people who might call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’”

“We want to partner with anybody who is interested in serving with Americans who have struggles and needs,” continued Ms. Rogers, “and we are also saying to the groups that you might call explicitly secular: ‘We are not a coalition of faith or religion, but we are people of conscience; we are people who want to serve others, and we want to work with you.’”

The work of the office is not limited to civil society or even the United States. Ms. Rogers noted that a key component of the office’s work relates to the international community. “One of the key parts of the team is the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at USAID [United States Agency for International Development],” said Ms. Rogers. “They play a central role in helping us partner with organizations in our own country that are seeking to reach out across the world (for example, Catholic Relief Services) and then in turn work with faith and community organizations in other countries that want to work with us.”

Ms. Rogers particularly drew upon the relationship that the United States enjoyed with Pope Francis under the Obama administration.

Ms. Rogers particularly drew upon the relationship that the United States enjoyed with Pope Francis under the Obama administration. “I remember that when Pope Francis came to visit, we had a very strong partnership with Catholic Relief Services and others working on climate change around the world,” noted Ms. Rogers. “That was something that President Obama and then-Vice President Biden wanted us to work on finding—those areas of common ground. It made it so that his visit was not just a photo-op but an opportunity to present areas of common collaboration to foster our partnership.”

Today, Ms. Rogers sees two significant goals for the office. “The biggest current opportunity,” stated Ms. Rogers, “is to work with faith and community groups to get the facts out about the virus and the vaccine and in turn to help people across the country get vaccinated and to help everybody get to a pre-Covid condition as fast as possible and to promote economic recovery as fast as possible.”

Looking to the future, Ms. Rogers shared that “the biggest long-term goal is building unity and increasing conversations across lines of difference and renew bonds that need to exist in our country to strengthen it.”

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