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Walking the walk, on the assembly line

Tyson Foods, the meat industry giant, employs 109 chaplains for its front-line workforce.  “My responsibility was to create an environment of permission for people to live their faith,” CEO John Tyson says.’s Alex Johnson reports.
John H. Tyson, CEO of Tyson Foods, says, “My calling and my responsibility was to create an environment of permission for people to live their faith.” In the background is the Rev. Alan Tyson, who oversees 109 chaplains who work for the company.
John H. Tyson, CEO of Tyson Foods, says, “My calling and my responsibility was to create an environment of permission for people to live their faith.” In the background is the Rev. Alan Tyson, who oversees 109 chaplains who work for the company.Spencer Tirey / Special to

¡Madre! ¡Madre!

The greetings ring out the moment Francis Rivers steps into the lunchroom at Tyson Foods’ chicken processing plant in the Missouri Ozarks. She circulates among the workers, chatting easily in unaccented Spanish. Some she asks about their families. With others, she shares in the gossip. At one table, she places her hand on a woman’s forehead and inquires about her health.

Much of the workforce here is made up of recent Hispanic immigrants to the United States. In Francis Rivers, many are welcoming their only spiritual counselor in their new country.

Francis Rivers is a nun. She is a vital link in the chain of support for many of the people who work in bone-chilling temperatures on the fast-moving lines of refrigerated machinery on which Tyson Foods guts, cleans, sorts and packages hundreds of thousands of chickens a week. She hears their triumphs and counsels them on their problems. She mediates their disputes with one another, with their spouses and sometimes with the company. She intercedes on their behalf with doctors and cops and teachers.

And she works for the boss.

Soothing souls; bridging divisions
Sister Francis, a School Sister of Notre Dame, is one of two part-time chaplains Tyson Foods employs to counsel the workforce at its Monett facility. While she walks primarily among Hispanic workers, the Rev. Chris Carver, pastor of Monett Church of the Nazarene, slides himself into quiet one-on-one discussions at tables occupied mostly by Anglos.

Both said they do a lot of work to bridge the cultural differences between the two groups. Carver, a significant number of whose church members are Hispanic, has spent many years ministering to congregants from Latin cultures and said he had been able to build a record of trust.

Likewise, Sister Francis said that as a woman of Mexican heritage from Los Angeles, she keenly understood the “culture shock” felt by Hispanic immigrants in the rural South. But she also is sensitive to workers who were born here and may struggle with the upheaval that comes with the arrival of a new culture.

“Sometimes, Anglo workers will say, ‘Well, why do they do that?’” she said. “And I will say, ‘Well, this is why.’ I enjoy that part of the work.”

Carver and Sister Francis are two of the 109 chaplains Tyson Foods had hired by March — more are hired on an almost-monthly basis — since John H. Tyson revived the company’s chaplaincy program upon succeeding his flamboyant father, Don, as CEO in April 2000. He said he had no agenda for the program — he just wanted to find a way to help the booming workforce of his fast-growing company.

Keeping secrets: The toughest dilemma
The appeal of being a chaplain in the workplace is the opportunity to step out of the pulpit and work one-on-one with people whom they would never see in church, the Rev. Mark McDonald said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Springdale, Ark.

But he and other chaplains acknowledged that that opportunity came with a dilemma. They wrestle with juggling the confidentiality of people in need — they are on call around the clock and are expected to help families in extreme crisis —and their responsibility to their employer, a Fortune 100 corporation that is the world’s largest meat producer.

Tyson Foods says all communications are kept in confidence, with four exceptions. Three are standard exceptions recognized by most clergy and social workers: They will report to supervisors or the authorities if workers 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.”

Carver said he leans heavily on the specific wording of that exception. He will file a report only if a worker volunteers the information without prompting. He said he was adamant about not asking.

'Confidentiality is a sacred thing'
“We’re not here to police. We’re here to minister,” he said. “If they tell me, I have to report it. I struggle with that.”

Another chaplain, the Rev. Laura Fleetwood, said she knew of one chaplain who was “really struggling” with the company’s requirement that “illegal team members” be reported. This chaplain, she said, had ministered to undocumented immigrants for many years and felt that “his first allegiance as a pastor was to them.”

Even the head of the program, the Rev. Alan Tyson — no relation to the founding family — said that as a pastor for a quarter-century, he wrestled with that conflict, because “confidentiality is a sacred thing.” He related an instance when a chaplain was obligated to report an employee who confessed that he had stolen chickens. Tyson said he and the plant manager were content to drop the matter when the chaplain arranged for the employee to pay for the chickens, “and that’s the end of it.”

For his part, Carver said he was convinced that the company was sincere in putting its employees’ needs first by providing his services.

“That’s what John says,” he said, referring to John Tyson, a recovering alcoholic whose former hell-raising ways raised investors’ eyebrows when he assumed the top job: “‘Because God has helped me, surely he can help someone else.’”

Salvaging a company’s shady reputation
John Tyson has worked hard to clean up the company’s image, tarnished by accusations involving illegal immigration and price manipulation and by some of his father’s escapades, which culminated in the company’s pleading guilty to a felony for giving gifts to Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in 1997.

Tyson completed a difficult purchase of pork and beef rival IBP Foods less than a year after he took over as CEO. The merger catapulted the company atop the list of the world’s largest meat producers, but it also married two very different corporate cultures — Tyson’s based largely in the right-to-work South, IBP’s in the labor-strife-wracked industrial Midwest and North — and it left John Tyson with an organizational headache just as investors were watching for proof that he had cleaned up his own act.

Among his initiatives was to rewrite the company’s statement of core values. An evangelical Christian, he worked with David W. Miller, executive director of Yale University’s Center for Faith and Culture, to come up with a list of values studded with words like “trusted,” “honorable” and “integrity.”

“We strive to be a faith-friendly company,” reads one of them. Another: “We strive to honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers, and other stakeholders.”

Another initiative was to ask Alan Tyson, a retired Army chaplain, to put together the chaplain staff. He came aboard in 1998, when Tyson Foods acquired Hudson Foods, where he served as chaplain.

The number of U.S. companies that have taken chaplains into the workplace is growing rapidly, but Tyson is almost unique among larger corporations in that it runs its program in-house. Most hire outside contractors, but Tyson’s chaplains — all but two of whom are part-time — work for the local plant manager and file regular reports to Alan Tyson.

Putting his faith where his mouth is
John Tyson, dressed in the same simple khaki shirt and pants worn by all of the company’s executives, laughed off the distinction in an interview, saying, “I probably wasn’t smart enough to think about the other way.” But when he was pressed to explain his thinking, Tyson said he chose to go in-house for both business and spiritual reasons.

The company exploded in size after it started buying up competitors, seeing its annual revenues quadruple from $7 billion to $28 billion in just three years. Working directly for the company meant Alan Tyson could respond to growth and hire new chaplains much more quickly than a contractor could have provided them.

More important, he said, was his commitment to a nondenominational program. The corporate chaplain industry is dominated by two firms, both of which hire only evangelical Christians. But Tyson said, “God represents all faiths out there.”

The great majority of Tyson’s staff is evangelical, too, but it also includes seven Catholics and a handful of other non-evangelicals. The company recently hired a Muslim prayer leader.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, who has cast doubt on chaplain programs as potential vehicles for proselytizing workers for a specific faith, called that hire “a positive step,” and he said the company’s willingness to take on Catholic chaplains was an “indication that Tyson has the right objective.”

John Tyson said, “I felt my calling and my responsibility was to create an environment of permission for people to live their faith — whatever that faith may be.”

Confronting the doubters
Tyson Foods has made a lot of enemies over the years. Environmental activists scorn it for what they say is its pollution of the nation’s waterways. Advocates for workers rights accuse it of running one of the most dangerous operations in the industry. Labor activists, especially, have taken it on as it drives down expenses in facilities it took over from IBP, where wages were generally higher than in the company’s core Southern plants.

Tyson has ready responses, pointing to awards it has won from the Environmental Protection Agency and citations for safety from regulators. It maintains that its wages and benefits, despite the cuts it has sought in numerous contracts, are the best in the industry.

Tougher to answer are critics who question the chaplaincy program, suggesting that it exists mainly to put a friendly face on a union-busting polluter.

Tyson is certainly aware of its chaplains’ PR value. It regularly issues news releases featuring its chaplains, whom it highlights in annual Clergy Appreciation Days. “It’s been phenomenally great public relations for the company,” one chaplain acknowledged.

That tendency to speak for the company troubles the Most Rev. Diana C. Dale, executive director of the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains.

Three years ago, when the Labor Department sued Tyson for not paying workers for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective gear at a plant in Alabama, the company trotted out chaplains to rebut the accusations and publicize its charitable efforts, Dale charged in an e-mail message to

That, she said, is a “direct violation of the ethics codes to which the national chaplaincy professional organizations subscribe,” and it highlighted an “on-going problem with perceived conflict of interest in being a chaplain for Tyson.”

Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s spokesman, denied that chaplains were “expected to take sides or speak for the company in a public dispute.” The company’s differences with NIBIC go back to the late 1990s, he said, when Alan Tyson, while still at Hudson Foods, resigned from the institute because of “concerns about the viability of the organization,” which he did not specify.

Miller, of Yale, cautioned that critics shouldn’t react too strongly when chaplains get involved in disputes. Members of the clergy can’t always step aside, he said; after all, “they’re there to listen and talk to and spiritually minister to people.”

A strike, he suggested, is “a perfectly appropriate time for a workplace chaplain to be a presence listening to everybody” — both management and labor. “They have an honest-broker role to play of listening to all parties, because all have issues of the soul and issues of pain and matters of consternation.”

For his part, John Tyson said everybody was probably reading too much into what he was doing.

“I think sometimes in society we try to make things too complicated,” he said. “... It comes back to people being able to be themselves 24-7, whether they’re in the workplace or in the grocery store or at the ballgame. They don’t have to feel like they’re fragmented.”