A Marriage of work and faith
For some, religion reaches beyond church

By Damon Adams, Sun-Sentinel


Mike Sullivan would rather save your soul than solve your tax problem.

When clients come to the Sullivan and Powell accounting firm in Fort Lauderdale, he’ll ask about faith as well as finances.

He’ll drop the religious questioning if someone isn’t receptive. But if they show interest, Sullivan may share a few Scriptures about the Christian lifestyle or invite them to his United Methodist church.

It’s all in a day’s work.

“I try to witness to everyone who walks into my office. I look at my conference room truly as a chapel,” said Sullivan, whose lobby features a Bible and whose office walls showcase images of Jesus. “When people are lying on their death bed, they’re going to be much more happy I talked to them about salvation than their tax problem in 1981.”

Religious expression in the workplace has been on the rise during the past decade, according to both religious leaders and government officials. Evangelicals are pushing for it, saying faith should extend beyond church on Sunday.

Increased awareness was created in August when President Clinton issued guidelines for acceptable religious expression in federal offices.

Clinton said the government cannot discriminate in employment on the basis of religion and should try to accommodate employees’ religious practices and holiday observances.

His guidelines spelled out acceptable practices such as reading a Bible or Koran during breaks, inviting a co-worker to church and wearing religious attire such as a crucifix or yarmulke. Deemed unacceptable: Supervisors telling subordinates they expect to see them in church or an agency considering religion when deciding promotions.

“Society in general is becoming more tolerant of Christians. It’s not so taboo to mention your religion at work,” said Al Otero, founder and director of the Christian Chamber of Commerce, based in Pompano Beach.

More protection at work may come: If passed by Congress, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act would make it harder for employers to restrict religious expression in private business. For example, it would be easier for employees to take time off for a religious holiday.

But the rise in religious expression also means more conflicts.

Charges of religious discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission climbed 43 percent between the 1991 and 1997 fiscal years, ending Sept. 30. The increase from 1,192 cases to 1,709 means employers nationwide spent $2.2 million in 1997 resolving complaints.

In Florida, the number of claims with the EEOC increased from 131 to 180 during the same period.

The First Amendment protects a worker’s expression of religion. And a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says an employer cannot fire or refuse to hire someone because of religion.

But some courts have sided with employers who found forms of expression counterproductive or offensive to employees.

A federal appeals court in 1988 ruled against a mining equipment manufacturer that required workers to attend weekly devotional services. In 1995, a woman in Iowa was fired for wearing an anti-abortion button and lost her case for religious discrimination.

Jack Karako, executive director of the American Jewish Congress southeast region, said his office hears complaints of Jews being preached to by Christian co-workers trying to convert them. When he worked for a government agency in the early 1980s, he complained to his boss about a co-worker who talked to him about Jesus.

“She said, ‘She’s a good employee and you just have to deal with it,’ “ Karako  recalled. “There has to be some more sensitivity in the workplace.”

Islam calls for Muslims to pray five times a day, not easy to do on a job.

Shafayat Mohamed, a local Muslim leader, knows Muslims who don’t feel comfortable praying during work breaks. He writes notes to employers for those who wish to skip lunch and attend weekly Friday services.

“A lot of people are afraid to do anything because they are afraid of how they will be treated,” said Mohamed, founder and spiritual head of Darul Jloom Institute and Islamic Training Center in Pembroke Pines.

Russ White doesn’t separate his Christian beliefs from his work as a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

On Biblical principle, White discourages Christians from suing each other, although he considers insurance companies or other institutions fair game.

“That’s not something that has a soul to save,” said White, also a city attorney for Oakland Park.

White won’t handle divorce cases because “God does not approve of divorce.” And he makes it clear to clients he won’t lie for them.

White has lost business because of it, but he believes he will receive greater riches by serving God.

“I don’t find it to be an oxymoron for a Christian to be a lawyer,” White said. “For all Christians, the Bible is our ultimate source of authority.”

Other professionals also find that faith and business are a good match.

The Christian Chamber of Commerce formed in 1994 to promote Christian values in business. It has six chapters in Florida and one in Louisiana totaling 500 members to network and discuss ethics and accountability in the workplace.

The Christian Businessman, a magazine based in Gainesville, published its first issue in August, offering stories on finance and successful businessmen to 20,000 readers nationwide.

Kevin Hudson, the magazine’s sales and promotions manager, offers this formula for success in business: “Just practice what the Bible teaches, love one another and work diligently.”

To do that, employees from Motorola in Plantation to WJMK Productions in Boca Raton are forming prayer groups.

Each morning for an hour and a half, about 20 of WJMK’s 40 employees gather in an office or conference room at the video production company. Men and women meet in one group on Mondays, then meet separately the rest of the week.

They read Scriptures, tell co-workers what God is doing in their lives, and open and close with prayer.

Chief Executive Office Mark Kielar started the prayer groups about three years ago after seeing the positive impact prayer had in his life. Kielar sees his employees getting the same fulfillment as they work more closely together and have a stronger work relationship.

“God’s a lot more involved in our day-to-day routine,” Kielar said. “As far as I’m concerned, the company’s infinitely better off than it was five or 10 years ago.

 

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