New DC Mayor Promises to Restore Faith Council

Partnerships between the Washington, D.C., faith community and the city government, mired by scandals and neglect, will be restored in the New Year, Mayor-elect Vincent Gray promises.

During a Sunday forum at the Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia, Gray announced plans to resurrect interfaith partnerships after he takes office in January.

"One of the things I want to do through the mayor's office is build a closer relationship with the religious community in the city," he shared with attendees.

The incoming mayor highlighted an initiative similar to the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to create an interfaith advisory committee. The committee would draw members from local churches and religious institutions to inform his decisions as mayor.

He also plans to re-establish the defunct outreach office, the Office of Religious Affairs.

His commitment to community faith talks is the first conversations of its kind in the last four years. For four years, the D.C. Office of Religious Affairs has been languishing, ignored and neglected.

Mayor Anthony Williams last restructured the office in 2002. He appointed a counsel of 65 members from many of the city's Baptist churches, Catholic parishes and Jewish temples. He also elected the Rev. Carlton Pressley, a previous appointee of President Bill Clinton, to serve as his interfaith advisor.

During William's tenure, Pressley was criticized for demonstrating little knowledge of the D.C. community and activating the council solely in times of political pressure.

In May 2002, he rounded up the interfaith council to lay hands on Mayor Williams, just before the mayor gave a sensitive testimony before the D.C. Council on fundraising irregularities.

"It raised a concern in my mind," the Rev. Derrick Harkins of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church told the City Paper.

 "It's real foggy whether it's a political arm or has the appearance of a political arm," he added.

Pressley resigned a year later amid allegations of sexual harassment and improperly soliciting financial contributions.

During current Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration, the office has been virtually non-existent.

Unlike its sister constituency offices, the office of Religious Affairs does not have a website. Efforts to reach the office by phone are instantaneously directed to voicemail.

"Mayor Fenty did not have a relationship at all with the organized religion in the city," said Gray.

During his campaign, Gray stated that part of his "One City" platform would be to create a new interfaith committee and religious services coordinator to represent him in the religious sphere.

He reaffirmed those plans at the Sunday forum. He also expressed interest in a prayer breakfast.

"Frankly, I'd like to return to something we did years ago which is a prayer breakfast, where we bring people together," expressed Gray.

Gray currently serves as the Ward 7 councilman and D.C. Council chairman. Earlier in his career, he served as the first executive director of Covenant House Washington, an interfaith organization for homeless and at-risk youth.

Gray will be sworn in as D.C.'s mayor in January 2011.