The 'chicken chaplain'

by Judith Best


View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

I'm trying to bridge an opposition in my life. It comes in little ways when I hear something I don't agree with, as I try to listen and integrate the questions raised by comments, political discourse and violent responses. This move from an "either/or" context to one of "both/and" is calling me to examine how I process information and make judgments.

My "either/or" thinking was challenged recently by one of my heroes of the planet, Dr. Peter Raven, who has served on the advisory board of the Pontifical Academy of Science, offering academic support to Pope Francis in writing Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home.

In a lecture, Dr. Raven said, "Most liberals are very supportive of the environment, but are often against corporations."

This comment called me to question my assumptions and find an example of a corporation who cares about their workers, even though I may not totally agree with their practices.

An opportunity came as I was chatting with Sr. Francis Rose Rivers, a School Sister of Notre Dame, regarding her former ministry, from 2003-2012, at a Tyson chicken plant in Monett, Missouri. A soft-spoken educator whose Mexican parents taught her the importance of faith and education, she grew up in Los Angeles and experienced the difficulties of crossing cultures. She has given her life to others as teacher, administrator and parish minister, exemplifying the power of "accompaniment."

She praises the work of Catholic Cuban-American theologian, Roberto Goizueta, whose "theology of accompaniment" is the basis of her ministry.

As an example, she explained that Hispanics from Mexico will rarely say, "I'm going to Maria's wedding." Instead they will say, "I am going to accompany Maria in her joy." To accompany someone, Sister Francis Rose continues, "Is to honor them, and implies the crossing over of any discriminatory racial or religious barriers."

"At Tyson I hoped that by being their compañera, I would encourage them to be a better Mennonite, Methodist, Baptist or whatever their faith journey is," she added.

The introduction of workplace chaplaincy was initiated by one of the founders, John Tyson, who was an alcoholic and then became a born-again Christian. He believed that his workers should be able to talk about God as well as football. Faith isn't only for Sunday; you bring your faith to work and share it.

Tyson wanted to integrate faith into the workplace as one way to support his workers — who were often immigrants — and at the same time build community in his workforce.

This workplace chaplaincy has been promoted by David W. Miller, whose Faith & Work Initiative at Princeton University encourages chaplains to find Christ in the face of every worker, and to support their faith journey, regardless of what it is. He worked with all the Tyson chaplains during several summer conferences.

Sister Francis Rose began volunteering an eight-hour day, walking through the plant wearing a lab coat, hairnet, rubber boots and large sound protectors. The noise, the smells and the bone-chilling temperatures made it impossible to talk to anyone on the line, as hundreds of thousands of chickens were gutted, cleaned and sorted each week.

Fondly called Madre, the workers got to know her and asked to talk to her over lunch for help with medical issues, family problems and so much more. Her services increased as she got to know the people. While 50 percent were from Mexico, others came from Somalia, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Being bi-lingual, and with her Hispanic background, her ministry of being a "chicken chaplain" was an opportunity to support those struggling in a challenging environment. 

Congruent with this theology is that, generally, Tyson chaplains do not have offices. They walked with team members on the production lines, sat with them in the locker rooms and ate with them in the dining room. "This meant we dressed like them, looking like a well-appointed nightmare, as they did," she recalled.

John Tyson introduced a code of ethics for ministers to "accompany" the workers. There could be no proselytizing or harassing of workers. Respect for all faiths, or none, was expected of the ministers. Sister Francis Rose explained the core values to each group of new hires in their weeklong orientation.

All communications between chaplains and workers are kept confidential, as would be expected in spiritual counseling. However, the chaplains were expected to uphold four stipulations of the ethics Tyson promoted.

Three are standard exceptions recognized by most clergy and social workers: they will report to supervisors or the authorities if a worker tells them that they are a danger to themselves or to someone else, or if they are being sexually harassed or abused.

The fourth exception reflects the position of Tyson's chaplains as employees of a publicly traded company. They will make a report if "you tell the chaplain you are doing something illegal that could put our company at risk."

In one instance a worker was discovered to have stolen some chickens. Through the support of a chaplain, the worker acknowledged his theft and paid for the chickens, while still retaining his job.

Tyson is the largest corporate user of workplace chaplains in the United States, and they provide ongoing education for their ministers. Sister Francis Rose once shared in conversation that the workplace chaplaincy was about to be terminated in one plant. When the workers heard this, they offered to give money from their own pay to keep the workplace chaplaincy operating in their plant.

Even though Sister Francis Rose was the only Catholic among the Protestant pastors, they liked to talk to her since many of the workers were Catholic. These conversations often led to friendships where she was able to "minister to the ministers," as they worked side by side.

One example of a practice she initiated was a simple remembrance of employees who had died. A photo of the deceased and a candle at her or his place in the dining room marked a special relationship with a co-worker.

During the remembrance, Human Resources provided roses, which co-workers moved from one vase to another showing their respect for the deceased. Often, those on shifts from all departments attended the service. Tyson owners agreed to stop the machines for 10 minutes to honor the memory of the worker. This translated into a loss of about $1,000 a minute during the work stoppage.

Another example of Sister Francis Rose's impact included access to medical care. Tyson team members have medical insurance, but often they could not afford to include their children or spouse. She recalled, "I became a member of an advisory board for a grant issued by the Missouri Health Department to improve access of Hispanics to medical care, and I offered our community center as a site for clinics. Classes were offered to medical personnel to help them learn medical terms in Spanish… The grant eventually offered screening clinics, teaming up with nurses at the Tyson infirmary to get maximum attendance."

All this being said, the company has been involved in lawsuits related to air and water pollution, use of illegal immigrants, price manipulation and use of undisclosed antibiotics.

This reality teaches me that no corporation is perfect, however, they are trying to honor Tyson's Core Values. Sister Francis Rose saw Tyson trucks pull out loaded with chicken, hamburger, water, bread and teams of Tyson managers and workers, who cooked for people after the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. This practice has been replicated throughout the United States.

Listening to my sister, a Tyson chicken chaplain, I crossed the bridge from "either/or" to "both/and" thinking, opening my heart to learn from a corporation that tries to provide "accompaniment" in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

[Judith Best is a School Sister of Notre Dame and coordinator of She gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]