President Barack Obama’s spiritual advisor Joshua Dubois sat down with JET to discuss his recently released book, The President’s Devotional. He shared with us details about the daily emails he sent to Obama and what he hopes the book will accomplish.
JET: How did you begin sending emails to the president?
Joshua Dubois: It was the 2008 campaign, and I was working like thousands of others to elect Barack Obama. I certainly didn’t think I was going to later become his spiritual advisor and send him devotionals. I would just pray for him privately by myself. During one of those moments in prayer, I had a strong sense that this was a man who had a lot of policy advice and political support, but I wondered who was thinking about his soul. So I thought I should send him a message and an encouraging word to help him start his day. I didn’t know if you were allowed to email United States senators (laughs), but I drafted up a note on the 23rd Psalm and sent it off to him and kind of held my breath to see what he was going to say. And in a few minutes, he wrote back and said, “This was exactly what I needed today. Would you mind sending these every morning?” That was six years ago, and I’ve been sending them every morning since.
JET: How old were you when you started doing that?
JD: I was 25.
JET: How did you officially become his spiritual advisor?
JD: Well, I led the White House faith-based office, so in that role I helped President Obama partner with faith-based organizations around the country. My work supporting him through these devotionals and praying with him was in my personal capacity. It just sort of grew over time. I started praying with him and his family and going to church with them and connecting him with pastors across the county. As I got to know him, that relationship deepened.
JET: Were you ever intimidated?
JD: I definitely was overwhelmed by the responsibility, but God was very clear that He uses people who aren’t necessarily qualified. The fact that I wasn’t qualified allowed God to work through me, because then it wouldn’t be Joshua who got the glory, but God. I was able to push through that fear and doubt and be able to reach out to him. And I’m glad I did, because the president said that the devotionals have been very meaningful to him.
JET: How did you decide which devotionals to include in the book?
JD: So it’s 365 devotionals compiled from more than 1,000 over the years. I tried to focus on the ones that would best help people start their days by growing closer to God and closer to their neighbors as well. The reality is, the challenges that the president of the United States faces every day aren’t that different from what we all face. I tried to find those devotionals that spoke to both the president and the people around the country—whether they are single moms who want to begin the day with purpose or entire families that want to figure out how to work through conflict and challenges and make it to the other side. I tried to find those devotionals that would best speak to people where they are.
JET: Does the president ever reply to your emails?
JD: Yes. I’m honored that he has replied and said that some have been meaningful. He’s talked about the fact that they meant the world to him. There was a time when I took about a week off unilaterally. I decided just to stop sending them and take a little break. Then I got a call from the White House switchboard saying, “the president is wondering where his devotionals are” (laughs), so that was a little embarrassing. But at least I knew he was reading them.
JET: Why did you take that week off?
JD: I wanted a little bit of a break from waking up early (laughs).
JET: What time do you send them?
JD: Between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. usually.
JET: Do you typically prepare them the day before?
JD: Usually on the weekends…Saturday afternoons or Sunday after church, I’ll try to prepare some for the week ahead.
JET: Do you ever draw inspiration from current events?
JD: You know, I really try to make the devotionals an oasis from whatever is happening in the news and really allow the president, and others as well, to connect to eternal principles in our lives. But from time to time, they will reference key issues that the president may be going through. And another big thing about the book is that it illuminates a side of the president most people don’t get to see—from his relationship with his wife to how he handles different situations, like Newtown, to his time as a senator being vulnerable, to his compassion toward me when my father passed away. A lot of times we see President Obama as someone on our TV screens, but we don’t get to know the man. I think this book finally introduces us to him.
JET: Did he know you were going to include personal anecdotes in the book?
JD: Yes. I think he had a sense of where it was going to go. He’s expressed that he thinks it’s a good book, and was glad that I did it. And I think the main thing is that it will help other people start their day with purpose. I also think it’s important that people are connected to their president, particularly in our community. And now people will be able to wake up every single morning and read the exact same things he was reading in his emails, which is a pretty remarkable thing.
JET: Did you read devotionals in the past?
JD: I would read a book called My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers frequently. I would also read Our Daily Bread, which is a short devotional, and some others as well.
JET: Did you draw from some of those?
JD: I drew from a lot of different sources. The president is both a Christian and also a history buff and a jazz fan. So I tried to pull in history and jazz. There were devotionals about Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Abraham Lincoln and James Baldwin. So I try to weave together a number of resources to help the president and help others in their faith.
JET: When did you first start reading devotionals?
JD: Even before I was a Christian, I always had my nose somewhere in a book. I was reading C. S. Lewis and Howard Thurman. I was kind of a nerd growing up, trying to absorb as much information as possible not knowing that it would ever be useful, but fortunately God has provided a pathway to inspire other people with the same things I have been reading for a lifetime.
JET: Since your parents are in the ministry, did you ever lean on them?
JD: Yes, absolutely. My stepfather is presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the A.M.E. church. He’s definitely someone, along with my mom, who I bounce ideas off of and who has been a strong spiritual support, but also pastors around the country. People like Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Bishop T.D. Jakes and many other friends have poured into me over the years. Hopefully, I’ve been able to pour some of that out to other people through this book.
JET: Do you send the scriptures to anybody else?
JD: It’s kind of two different categories. So I have the personal list of folks who receive a completely different devotional, and then the president gets his as well. I’m actually starting to send them through my website, joshuadubois.com. I send one new devotional, that’s not in the book, every week to different folks who are interested.
JET: Do those devotionals ever overlap with the ones you send the president?
JD: No, they don’t. I make sure that his are his.
JET: Do you know if the first lady ever reads them?
JD: I don’t know. I haven’t asked him that before. Maybe from time to time, but I’m not sure.
JET: Other than Billy Graham, are there other spiritual advisors that you’ve been able to meet?
JD: Yes, many over the years. Again, obviously the president has deep relationships with folks in the Black church, so he recently had meeting with heads of all the major African-American denominations. He started an Easter prayer breakfast, where every year he brings in top church leaders. Everyone from Reverend Stephen Thurston, in Chicago; to Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, head of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Bishop Charles Blake, the Church of God in Christ; Bishop Vashti McKenzie; Reverend Cynthia Hale and other strong African-American women pastors. The president has really been able to engage the broad spectrum of the Black church, and I’ve been honored to be a part of that.
JET: Do they ever give you any advice?
JD: Absolutely. They encourage me to be bold and step out on faith and realize that God will always be there. Whenever we do bold and courageous things, we must also continue to encourage the spirit of humility and make sure we understand it’s not about us, it’s about the Kingdom of God and serving God’s people.
JET: Is there anything else you’re still looking to do?
JD: Well honestly, I hope I can help every African-American household in this country have this book just as a way of connecting with our president and connecting with his spiritual life and beginning their days as he does. I’m also running a consulting firm and writing regularly. I’m excited that I’ve just gotten married, so we’ll be starting this journey together as well.
JET: Any other devotionals or books in your future?
JD: We’ll see. I’m just excited about The President’s Devotional for now. We’ll see what the future holds.
JET: Can you talk about your decision to leave the White House?
JD: I was so honored to be there and walk those halls, working for the first African-American president. Just 50 or 60 years ago that would not have been available to someone like me. It was the honor of a lifetime. I really felt that God was calling me to testify to what happens when you are faithful to people across the country. So I wanted to get on the road and start spreading that message. I also knew that relationships, whether with the president or other people I worked with in the White House, would continue to endure even after I left. I was sending devotionals long before I got to the White House in the first place and continue now. That knowledge helped enable me to move on to some new things.
JET: What is your relationship with the White House like now?
JD: I’m honored to support the president as often as I can. I still send him devotionals. I still help my friends in the White House on a range of issues. I had the deep honor of attending the homegoing services of the president’s dear friend Ms. Evelyn Lowery, Reverend Joseph Lowery’s wife, on his behalf and reading a letter for him there. I still try to serve as often as I can.