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Emanuel on faith, its influence on decision not to run: ‘I’m totally at peace’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivers a speech at the Chicago Cultural Center during the annual iftar dinner on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Some 200 Muslims from Chicago’s Islamic community organizations filled the tables of Preston Bradley Hall at the Downtown Chicago Cultural Center on Tuesday evening.

Covered copper chafers emitted steam on tables at both end of the room, and in the east corner, rows of multicolored carpet runners were laid out to be used as prayer rugs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel rose to the stage, giving a speech on religion and faith, the differences between Jews and Muslims and the similarities that bind.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel watches as people pray at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
Mayor Rahm Emanuel watches as people pray at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

And as always, particularly during this farewell tour of sorts, the mayor spoke of his deep love for Chicago and its diversity.

“The name Rahm comes from the name Abraham. In the Arab and Muslim faith, there is the name Rahim. It too comes from Abraham. We come from one father, separate religions, but a singular faith,” the mayor said, his speech continuing and touching on hatred that’s run rampant.

“So I want to be clear to you as the mayor of this great city, this city that welcomed my grandfather 100 years ago: There will be zero tolerance in our city for intolerance,” Emanuel continued to rousing applause.

“There will be no room and no quarter for bigotry and racism and Islamophobia. You are welcome in this city. This is your home.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel helps himself to food during the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel helps himself to food during the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.

It was the second time the outgoing mayor had been at Preston Hall that day. He’d begun the day with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast there with pastors of different faiths who have been friends and supporters during his eight-year tenure.

“[My wife] Amy and I hosted it to thank them,” Emanuel said in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times after the evening Iftar dinner, which his office has sponsored during Ramadan for the last six years.

Iftar is the meal Muslims eat after breaking their fast observed from sunrise to sunset during this holy month.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel kisses a baby as he meets people at the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
Mayor Rahm Emanuel kisses a baby as he meets people at the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

“I don’t want to just say we’re a city of diversity without practicing what that diversity means,” said Emanuel, just 1 1/2 weeks before vacating the 5th floor of City Hall to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who will be sworn in at 10:30 a.m. May 20 at Wintrust Arena.

The past few weeks have been filled with many such farewell gatherings for Emanuel, with friends, staff, associates, supporters. As Tuesday’s gatherings were heavy on faith, the mayor told the Sun-Times about his own, as the sun sets on this chapter of his life.

“I talk about faith all the time. I believe,” said the 59-year-old career politician whose wife also co-hosted the iftar.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks to Amy Rule, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wife, during the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks to Amy Rule, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wife, during the annual iftar meal at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

“As Jews, I believe that our role is that of healing the world and leaving it better. I believe too often we don’t give faith any quarter in our society. It becomes quite political obviously. It’s why I don’t talk about religion so much as faith,” Emanuel said.

“My own faith? I grew up in a Jewish home which much identified me with religiosity and the history of being a Jew; what it means to be a Jew that understands and appreciates persecution, and those who are persecuted and downtrodden, and those who are other, and what it means to bring them from otherness into the centrality of our story.”

The mayor’s rabbi had chided him at the pastors breakfast, teasing that Emanuel attends more Baptist and Catholic churches than his own synagogue. “I need to work on being a better Jew,” Emanuel said, adding that as mayor, those relationships with diverse pastors was important.

“You know the crown is heavy in this job, and in the low times when it weighed heaviest, I always knew I had the prayers of the faith community at that breakfast,” Emanuel said.

“There is never a moment in the tenure of a public official that you don’t have doubt, when your knees don’t get wobbly. And faith leaders play an important role in carrying you through those moments.”

About 200 hundred people attended the annual iftar meal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019 | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
About 200 hundred people attended the annual iftar meal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019 | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

What role did faith play in his decision not to seek re-election?

Emanuel fell silent for some time. “That’s a good question. I don’t know. Because so much of that was more professional than spiritual … ”

He again fell silent.

“I owe you an answer on that. I don’t think my faith or my spirituality played any role in that decision. But I do know that afterward, I felt at peace about it. And actually, as I get to the end, where I thought I would have more anxiety, I am totally at peace, and there’s a oneness with the decision,” the mayor then offered.

So against that backdrop, what’s his advice to the African American woman who’ll soon wear the aforementioned heavy crown?

“I gotta do that privately with Lori. It wouldn’t be fair. What I can say publicly to her is, ‘Remember your family,’ ” Emanuel replied.

“You’ll make good decisions. You’ll make bad decisions. But you don’t want to make a bad decision about your family.”

“Amy and I worked very hard, from Congress to chief of staff and then mayor, to make our family central, protected. We had the work organized around our family, not our family around our work. And if you keep that grounded, everything else will work out.”

People pray at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
People pray at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 7, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times