Sunday, May 14, 2006

Church and state

When a group represents the entirety of foodservice, a patchwork as varied as the nation itself, should it risk even a half-step into the divisive territory of religion? That’s the question that comes to mind after a glance at the schedule for the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago later this week.

I attended my first NRA show 26 years ago, and I’ve seen the conference change a lot during that time. In the mid-1980s, for instance, one of the touted attractions was an appearance by Heloise, a then-popular newspaper columnist who offered home-cleaning advice. She was booked to share her secrets with wives who wanted to excel in their work.

This was just a few years before foodservice executives would meet in Chicago to form what is now the Women’s Foodservice Forum, with the express purpose of helping women clean up in their careers, not in their homes. A highlight of this year’s conference will be the presentation of a new award from the WFF to the foodservice company that’s done the most outstanding job of putting women behind desks they’ll never have to polish.

Clearly we’ve come a long way, or so it seemed until I spotted an item on this year’s agenda: A morning prayer breakfast, convened as one of the NRA’s special events. Listed under the same designation are an executive’s briefing on issues of the moment; an awards program for U.S. Air Force foodservice facilities; and one-on-one advice sessions with restaurant designers.

The National Hospitality Prayer Breakfast is billed as “an incredible opportunity to network,” with the added draws of appearances by Spencer Tillman, a CBS sports commentator, and Truett Cathy, the founder of the Chick-fil-A chicken chain. It’s being held at 6:30 a.m., on a Sunday, when many convention attendees would presumably be heading to church anyways.

But they’d be doing that on their own, outside the boundaries of the show itself. This is something that, by virtue of being included on the program, is sanctioned by the NRA, and that raises some qualms. The group should be fastidiously non-denominational, just as it shouldn’t declare itself an organization for Republicans instead of Democrats, or vice-versa. In short, it shouldn’t show favoritism to one faction of its constituency, since that could imply disregard for the beliefs of other members.

In this specific instance, the association is veering from that policy with the inclusion of a Christian event in its roster of special activities. The prayer breakfast is being presented by an entity called Hospitality Industry Ministries, Inc., a group formed in Atlanta with a goal of instilling prayer into industry events. But that’s just a means to a larger end, as the organization explains on its website:

“The purpose of the Hospitality Industry Ministries is to lead people in the hospitality community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered.”

That sort of mission shouldn’t have a place in the major convention of foodservice, a trade that includes plenty of persons from other faiths. Why should they be excluded, or made to feel uncomfortable, as if they’re outsiders?

I’ve always been a loyal champion of the National Restaurant Association; the industry is fortunate to be represented by such a vibrant, professional and powerful organization. But the NRA made a mistake by including the event in this year’s program. It should correct the problem quickly, and forever more leave religion on the sidelines.


  1. I totally concur.....keep religion out of our business! It doesn't belong in the government and certainly not in the hospitality/restaurant biz....that the NRN would schedule this is incredible....I assume the board approves these functions....?

  2. Our country was founded upon christian principles. Our government's purpose was to establish a place to live where people could worship God....have we really come so far that a prayer meeting is seen as a threat to others?

  3. Our country's heritage is full of examples of religion being practiced in the public square, to say otherwise would be a denial of history. Those who want no part of God have as their mission the expungement of religion from public view. Is that the case here? The NRA show exists in large part because organizations participate and provide support hoping others will see value in what they have to offer. So too the case here. Every attendee chooses what parts of the program they will or will not attend. I doubt if I decide to get up and attend this prayer breakfast rather than sleep in I won't be offending anyone except those who would like to stop me from being able to have that choice.

  4. I am distressed to hear that a group with this agenda is allowed to use the NRA as a platform.

    Allowing the Hospitality Industry Ministries, Inc., with a goal of instilling prayer into industry events and leading people in the hospitality community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered” is an affront to ALL non-christians.

    So much for the NRA promoting their involvement in the MFHA! NRA materials point out the number of Asians, American Indians, and others - not to mention the large numbers of Budists, Jews and Muslims in the industry that do not embrace the ministries mission.

  5. If you don't like it, don't go. If your a Buddhist, Jew or Muslim and feel left out, then I suggest you network with others with your spiritual beliefs to set up your prayer breakfast for next years convention.

    Maybe NRN isn't so interested in exclusively promoting Christianity, but spirituality in the workplace...whatever the religion.