Faith and Work – I'm Trying to Figure Both of These Out!

Sermon by Lee Murray

Several years ago I was asked to talk to a group of students at Seattle University about how my values informed my work. I thought, “Oh, no, that means I have to figure out what my values are!”

But, I gave the talk.

When Amy asked if I would be interested in speaking this summer I was challenged again. This time I had to figure out an aspect of my faith enough to share with you, my faith community!

Well, here I am.

I think I have pretty much figured out my values. I do have a deep faith in God. I have come to understand that life and faith are a journey. And, most days I can appreciate that.

Also, I do have a job.

I work for a non-profit organization called Housing Resources Group – otherwise known as HRG. We have apartments with affordable rent that we lease to low wage workers and folks living on fixed incomes because of age or disability. To give you context, affordable rent or affordable housing is defined as costing no more than 30% of your monthly income. HRG provides affordable housing to about 2700 people. We have over 1600 apartments in 28 buildings. All of the buildings are close to jobs, services and transportation. This is so our residents can get an apartment with affordable rent close to their work. And so they don’t have to go far for their groceries and other services. To find affordable rent around here, many low income households have to “drive until they qualify.” So if their work is in the city core, they have long commutes. Or, to be closer, they might live in substandard housing or in crowded conditions to afford the rent. Or, market rate rent gobbles up a large percentage of their monthly income and they can never get ahead. I characterize what we do as homelessness prevention. Many of the residents of our buildings just get by – one financial crisis away from not having the money to pay the rent or the bills or to buy food. Minimum wage in the State of Washington is $8.07 an hour, but it takes full-time earnings of almost $22 an hour to afford a market rate 2 bedroom apartment in this city. There are thousands of lower income households in Seattle that spend more than 50% of their monthly earnings on housing costs. Wages for low wage workers have generally stagnated over the last two decades while the cost of living obviously has not.

HRG housing is in good physical shape. It provides stability and quality of life and minimizes household transportation costs. You might know some of our buildings – The Gilmore is downtown at 3 rd and Pine – across the street from Macys where the McDonalds is. The Eagles Apartments are above ACT Theatre in the old Eagles Auditorium by the Washington State Convention Center. Last year we opened the Stone Way Apartments on the southwest corner of Stone Way and 45 th in Wallingford. Early this year we finished rehabilitating the old Colman Elementary School into the Urban League Village. We created affordable apartments above the long dreamed of African American Museum – in the Central District on the I-90 lid. We also assist other nonprofits – like the Urban League, Downtown Emergency Service Center, the YWCA and Harborview Mental Health – as they add housing to the services that they provide to their clients.

I have been at HRG for just over 11 years. I have always been a Director. Over the years I’ve been responsible for various things – accounting and reporting, finance, human resources, office administration, and now, housing development. For the last few years I have been HRG’s Deputy Director. It is challenging and rewarding work. And I’m very proud of what we do.

I’ve been in the working world for 30 years. I have been very privileged to have satisfying work and an interesting career path. I have had various jobs. All of them have been about using my skills and abilities, having a sense of purpose, satisfaction, challenge, stimulation and a paycheck. My faith has been at work in all of my jobs, I believe. I bring my faith to work in who I am. I like to think that it influences how I interact with people, how I commit to the work and perform. Until HRG, my jobs were mostly about the newspaper ads calling or our family finances calling, not necessarily God calling. At least I don’t think so.

I’m not sure I know exactly what “call” means, but my linking up with Housing Resources Group has to be close.

I had been working for many years at SAFECO Properties – a for-profit commercial real estate subsidiary of SAFECO Insurance Company. I had a fantastic tenure there – I started as a bookkeeper and ended as Assistant Controller. I learned a lot about real estate and accounting and finance and personnel management. Along the way I became a CPA. They were supportive of me as a working mother and had even helped me to go part-time for several years when my daughters, Heather and Erin, were young. I worked with some great people and got a lot of satisfaction out of what I did. But, as my responsibilities grew – and they made me an officer of the corporation – I found that I couldn’t embrace the mission and be my authentic self. I wanted to take my skills and experience and work for the “greater good” – for the community. I wanted to close the mission loop, so to speak. My work life had everything but that. One day I noticed an ad in the Puget Sound Business Journal for Director of Financial Management at HRG. As I read the ad it just burned into me – it seemed like the perfect fit and just what I was waiting for. Within the week I decided to apply. The same day that I dropped my letter and resume in the mail I got a call – not from God J – but a telephone call from a head hunter who had been employed by HRG to find candidates for their opening. It was an amazing coincidence – and the job was like a perfectly fitting glove sliding on my hand. I truly believe that it was “meant to be.” It was humbling and scary to leave a place where I had been for 14 years. For the first time I was moving into a job that wasn’t bringing with it an increase in my paycheck. But, that voice inside of me assured me it was right and my family was behind me.

I know that it is my values that drive me at work. And it is my faith that drives my values. However I work with people who share my values, strongly, but don’t profess a faith. I think about that a lot. Would I still be at the same place if I wasn’t a person of faith? I don’t think I’ll ever know. And I don’t think it necessarily matters.

So what are my values? Many that I likely share with all of you. Number One is Integrity, which to me means: Being forthright. Treating others fairly. Operating from a place of empathy. Respecting others no matter their life situation. Working in my own way for peace and justice. I value personal responsibility. I value open mindedness and inclusivity. Because I am a person of faith these values are grounded in my belief in God.

But I don’t have it all together and I don’t think I ever will. My faith has matured but the journey has its ups and downs. My relationship with paid work has matured from thinking of it as a job to thinking of vocation or lifework – which is not always great for my work/life balance. I am a type A personality. If you know me you’ve probably already figured that out. So I’m driven, really, by my faith and values to work to “make a difference” – whatever that is – at a rate that hasn’t necessarily always been healthy for my body, mind and spirit. I’m working on learning the art of reflection – learning to listen to my inner voice and not feeling guilty about taking time out for my own self-care. I have these tapes in my head about being productive. And, I know I have so much to learn about letting go and trusting God and others that things will work out or be OK.

I’ve read Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak, multiple times. In it he talks about discovering your deep identity and that seed of authentic vocation. He talks about listening to your own voice as well as the voices of others as you seek vocational direction. His writing is powerful to me and gives me permission to make time for silence and to listen to my soul.

As I was preparing my words for this morning, I found myself getting stuck and spun around –by the whole concept of “call.” I got “hung up J ” on call. When I was a kid, I mostly heard about people being “called to the ministry.” Now I understand call – as well as ministry – in a much broader sense. And, for myself, in hindsight I can understand that “call” has played a role in my lifework.

But, really:

What is call?

What about all those in the world who spend every day just trying not to be hungry?

What about the residents in HRG housing who find it difficult to make ends meet?

How do I reconcile my need for finding my true vocation with their daily struggles?

Is call only for those of us privileged enough to have the time and space to enter into times of discernment?

Is it about the short-term decisions that we make about work or is it about the totality of our life spans?

Is it about doing or is it about being?

Over the last several years I have spent significant time considering the next chapter in my lifework. I’m restless and I wonder why. Do I just need an adventure or is God tapping on my shoulder? I’m trying hard to listen. While one shoulder is feeling the tapping there are these little gremlins sitting on my other shoulder – their names are Fear, Guilt and Security.

In a way I’ve been planning – or God has been leading me (question mark!)– in a new direction. Several years ago I went back to school and got my Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University. I recently took on an entirely new role at HRG to learn new skills. Heather and Erin are grown. My husband, Rob, is happy being Coe Elementary’s PE teacher.

Even so, I think this time when it happens – whatever “it” is – will require a real leap of faith – not just leaving one job and moving to another – but a re-introduction of myself to my true self, or a redefinition of what I think “work” is. Because I am such a planner and a bit of a control freak I’m finding this unknown, this mystery, somewhat difficult. My job change from SAFECO Properties to HRG occurred after 4 years of pondering and waiting. How long will this shift take? Good question. Maybe it’s not going to be as obvious and spectacular as the last time. Maybe it is already happening. Maybe it is about my involvement with Stop, Drop and Roll here at SMC. Maybe it is about my emerging urban farm, my new flock of chickens in my backyard. Maybe it’s about something new at HRG. Maybe I just need to chill out. I don’t know yet. And sometimes I lose sight of how privileged I am that I can even contemplate vocation in this way. That Rob and I don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck like many individuals and families. That I have my health. That I have a spiritual life.

In the meantime, as I live with this question, my work is good. I am very fortunate to spend my weekdays in a way that is consistent with my values while striving to meet a real community need.

Well, this talk has really been all about me. But, you know, it is also about all of you. The maturation of my faith – the building of my adult faith – has been here at SMC. Knowing you, hearing your stories, experiencing your faith, exploring our spiritual lives together, striving to be followers of Jesus – all have formed me and informed me as I’ve navigated my adult life and my working life. So I thank you for your partnership and I’m honored to have been able to share today.

May God bless us all as we put our faith to work.