My Labor, My Work, My Ministry 2017

On the Sunday before Labor Day, Christian Vocation Sunday, 3 church members share how they live their Christian faith and discipleship in the workplace or in their vocation. This year’s speakers were Cheryl Prowell, Senior Water Resource Control Engineer at California Regional Water Quality Control Board; Daniel Ferreira, Baker, M. H. Bread and Butter; and Jo Gross, Spiritual Director.

Cheryl Prowell 

As you heard in the children’s sermon, growing up, my gifts were not athletic. My mother was a librarian and my dad was a computer scientist, they helped me develop a love of reading, and math, and logic puzzles. When I went to college and needed to pick a major, I settled on engineering, because even though I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an engineer, I knew engineers used math and science to solve problems. In college I was introduced to the field of environmental engineering, and that felt like my calling.

Environmental engineering is a broad field. It can involve trying to prevent climate change, designing safeguards so that chemical plants shouldn’t catch fire even in natural disasters, or redesigning our consumer products so that they are less toxic in the first place. My niche is investigating and cleaning up after chemical spills, especially when chemicals have seeped into the soil, and groundwater.

I work for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, it is a state agency that is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Our agency has a number of programs that protect or restore the quality of surface water and groundwater in the Bay Area. There are about 120 people in my office, and about 1/3 of them work on projects like I do, overseeing the cleanup of contaminated properties. I’m a middle manager, supervising six engineers, scientists and geologists. Most of our cases come to us when properties are being bought or sold. If properties were ever used to store or manufacture chemicals, banks require investigation and want to know the cost of cleanup before they will give a loan to a new buyer. They rely on us as a State Agency to make sure that the investigation is thorough and the cleanup will make the property safe for future uses.

Our industry is based on the concept that the polluter should pay for cleanup. These polluters range from fortune 500 companies, to small family owned businesses, like dry cleaners. Just because a business is small, doesn’t mean the problem is small. The traditional solvents used for dry-cleaning are toxic and difficult to cleanup. Most drycleaners have had spills of some kind, often due to practices that were OK in the 50’s and 60’s and illegal today. Yet they don’t have the resources of the big companies to fix the problem. In our process, I try to be an advocate for the poor and the powerless. This may be the polluter, who is an elderly immigrant widow spending the last of her savings trying to cleanup accidental spills from the business she started with her husband in the 1960’s. Or the poor and the powerless may be the future occupants of new housing that will be built on the property. Or I may be advocating for my staff, who have to push back against the developer to make sure that appropriate safeguards are in place.

I do my best to explain the science and our laws, and be as fair and consistent as possible. Finding the balance overly conservative, and too lenient is not always easy. Finding this balance takes discernment, based on good science and guided by my faith.

Joanne suggested that as we prepare for our talk, we think about who influenced us in our career. I include Carl Basore in that list. He was retired before I met him, so we never directly worked together, unless you count washing dishes for REST. When he found out what I did and that it was similar to the work of his former company, he asked me to say hello to a few people for him. I had recently moved back to the Bay Area, and this helped to create my first friendships in my new office. At Carl’s funeral, I sat next to one of those women. Like many of my co-workers, she believes in the mission of our agency to protect human health and the environment. Yet, she is guided by science, what she can see and prove, more than by anything spiritual or religious. At first, she seemed a bit uncomfortable sitting in our sanctuary. As we waited for the service to start, she reflected on what Carl and I had in common, and asked me what it was about this place that made us different. Our careers speak more than whatever answer I gave.

Dan Ferreira

Good morning. Thank you, Joanne, for inviting me to speak today about my Christian vocation. Many of you know that I am a musician. For over 5 years I was a Music Librarian with the San Francisco Symphony. But that’s not the job I’m going to talk about today. Five months ago I resigned from the San Francisco Symphony so that I could spend more time with my family. The saga of a career transition is a story for another day, but rest assured, I am and will always be a dedicated musical artist. The vocation I want to tell you about today is sourdough bread baking. In April I started baking bread at M.H. Bread and Butter here in San Anselmo.

I’ve been passionate about bread for as long as I’ve been passionate about clarinet. In fact, when I take breaks from practicing clarinet at home I bake bread. When I travel to upstate New York for chamber music workshops I bake bread everyday for a dozen hungry musicians. When I began looking for a new job after the Symphony my wife encouraged me to apply for the job at the bakery. I’m glad I did. To borrow the words of Martin Philip, Head Baker at King Arthur Flour in Vermont, “I bake because it connects my soul to my hands, and my heart to my mouth.”

Crafting a loaf of sourdough bread is an ancient practice. Breaking bread in community is eternal. Bread is elemental: it requires Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Bread is made from flour, water, and salt and is leavened by wild yeasts and bacteria in the air. But the sourdough bread I make gets another ingredient: my faith. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread….” I am baking the daily bread. This is a fact that I am keenly aware of and prayerfully consider every day. It keeps me humble and focused when I remember I am doing God’s work.

Baking bread is a devotional practice that begins anew each morning. When I arrive at work the first thing I do is wash my hands. Then I find a quiet corner of the bakery and I pray. I greet the other bakers who have been hard at work since 3am. We take a moment to, literally, break bread together and share coffee before my shift begins. As we work together at the bench dividing and shaping the day’s bread I can feel the fellowship among us. We talk about the bread from the day before: what worked, what didn’t work, what we can do better today. Sometimes we joke around. Sometimes we work in silence, swiftly moving through the morning’s tasks with hardly a word spoken. On mornings like this it feels like we are a tight knit baker’s quartet and our bread is the music.

Every day is different but one thing remains the same: the more faithfully I work, the better we work together. At the end of my day I pull the baked bread from the oven. When I get my first look at the finished bread the magic of a fresh loaf is always a wonder. As I unload about 1,000 pounds of finished bread in their steel baking pans customers gather around to watch. What draws them near? What universal appetite attracts us to fresh baked bread? Our soul is hungry for it.

How can a simple mix of flour, water, and salt be forged into a food that transforms us? It is God. He is with me while I bake so that through me, you may have your daily bread.

“Hold Onto What Is Good” Jo Gross  

Three years ago my family and I decided it was time for me to move into a retirement community. I recall thinking: “How could I do this? How could I leave my home in this lovely neighborhood—and the street where I lived? How could I leave my rose garden and my kitchen table? How could I leave a way of life that I cherished?” I thought how Life stories resemble books and how dramatic change and loss is akin to losing a bookmark. The narrative is altered.

And so it was with me. After I moved, I stumbled around a few months, wondering if I would ever fit into this new way of living. I sensed a loss of identity. Phil was gone, my children scattered and my grandchildren, grown up and away. I imagined I was a bird with clipped wings. The need for purpose tormented me. “Would I find purpose–Holy purpose–in this new reality?”

Then, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice saying, “You are forgetting something. You have identity. You may feel changed but you are the same person you have always been. You need to hold on to what is good, believe in yourself and the life I gave you.” I recognized the tender touch of the Holy Spirit. A favorite hymn echoed: “Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may will what thou would will and do what thou would do.” I picked up my imaginary book, found my place, and re-engaged with my story. I would savor memories but cease my relentless lament for all I missed. I would press on as I knew if I stood still, I would turn to stone.

I began by looking around at the people who live where I live. I listened to their stories and found new appreciation for who they are. I experienced different belief systems and different backgrounds. Slowly, and with the help of friends and family, I regained confidence in who I am now and aware of the many gifts of divine love and grace that sustain me. I recalled stories from living in third world countries where we learned that in cross-cultural situations, the key to ministry is to become the message. I thought of St. Francis saying: “Preach the Gospel always, sometimes use words.” And of Maya Angelo who said, “People may not remember what you say or do, but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

These thoughts also remind me of the years I directed a soup kitchen. Is there really any difference? Doesn’t the entire world need a soup kitchen? No matter where we work or live, how old or how young, with disadvantaged or advantaged people, our purpose—our holy purpose—is to celebrate life by being living reminders of the good news of God’s grace. This is the story you have heard from all of us this morning –and it is your story too— the message we carry with us—the one we become.

So onward with love and may God’s goodness and mercy go with us all.

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