Something's missing from all this talk of fixing Chicago: Religion



Published June 24, 2016 in Crain's Business Newspaper in Chicago. Click here to read the original.


Crain's ambitious Future of Chicago event last week had speakers on education, economics, fiscal development and criminal justice. Each offered many good ideas for addressing our civic problems. Yet a common denominator was missing from proposed solutions: religion.

At the event, there was only one speaker who represented the voice of faith in the business community: Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church is a spiritual leader who puts “businessman” at the top of his bio. But justifying religious identity with business credentials misses an important point. Religious identity is a business credential.

Once upon a time, that would have meant a Christian religious identity. Today's landscape, by contrast, is one of greater inclusiveness. A rich variety of faiths find welcome on the sales floor and in the boardroom.

In the '70s and '80s, a business person's church attendance was part of their bona fides. In the 1990s this changed. The culture wars left a generation convinced that faith and business should not mix. The expectation as we entered the new century was that you left your religious self at the door when you came to work.

We have come back again to a blossoming welcome of religion in the workplace. Only now the spectrum of faiths is much more broad. Businesses again see a value when employees bring their "full selves" to their work. This includes their religious selves.

Unlike the 1980s, the welcome includes those who wear turbans, or kepahs. It includes those who grow their beards or shave their heads. It includes those who pray five times a day, as well as those who choose not to pray at all.

And the value of this is not just emotional. My business associates in the city tell me that stakeholder relations improve. Clients feel more valued when they realize a business has a room where they can pray. Associates and internal stakeholders feel a new freedom, as well. I know of one vice president from a Chicago bank who used an insight from her practice of Buddhism to improve a workflow and cut costs.

The fear, of course, is proselytizing. But these new business paradigms are not about conversion or evangelism. They are about a deep form of hospitality.

As the president and CEO of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, I have seen the benefit when a company culture is a supportive space for religious identities. And we're not alone in recognizing that value. Recently in Hyde Park, I attended a launch for an initiative called Stakeholder Health. This is a model first developed in Memphis, Tenn. Health care suffers when many minority populations are wary of entering the health care system. The bureaucracy overwhelms some. Others remember scandals like the Tuskegee syphilis trials.

These people do not always trust their doctors—but they do trust their pastors.

Since the early 1990s, Chicago has been a sister city to these Memphis efforts. Advocate Health is one example. They create ongoing partnerships with religious communities across Chicago to foster healthier behaviors. They use low-level engagements, like church bulletin inserts, and tell congregants about nutritional alternatives and simple exercise techniques. But Advocate also works with 40 Chicago churches. These are host sites for their Faith Community Nurse Ministry program. Nurses embed within the congregation to provide ongoing health screenings and other support services.

From the grass-roots level, faith communities also take the initiative themselves. The First Ladies' Health Initiative is a multi-city program funded in part by Walgreens. The “First Ladies” are pastors' wives. The initiative works to use their influence to shift congregational cultures. Over 50 Chicago churches take part, providing regular screenings for diseases like diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and Alzheimer's.

Trinity UCC, on the South Side, is one of several vanguard congregations here in Chicago. Its ministries include support for those struggling with cancer, lupus and mental illness. Some work from the corporate side. Some work from the congregational side. But they are on the same side. And they have one thing in common: They understand faith communities have a key to a solution.

The Future of Chicago events in years to come should be open to this. The event this year featured experts from across the country. Their advice to us was wholly secular in its imagination. This was a self-imposed limitation.

Little from the stage acknowledged the power and potential of Chicago's faith communities. The inclusion of the Rev. Brooks was a good start, but it was not enough.

Whenever Chicago gathers to talk about our future, invite our faith communities. They are part of the solution. They should be at the table.

David Dault is the president and CEO of Chicago Sunday Evening Club.