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Faith and Sewage

Jane Mountjoy-Venning
On Garbage (November 2017)
Healing the World

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (translated into English in 1993) has been my theme book for years. While it was written with toilet trainees and their eager caregivers in mind, I have other reasons to display the book prominently in my office. I work for a program in our local health department, the program that monitors water quality in streams, lakes, and groundwater, the program responsible for ensuring that the septic systems in our county are adequately treating the sewage that flows through them. That’s where “everyone poops” comes in.

I face the same challenges as any public servant, no matter the topic. We represent and serve everyone – the entire public, every last one. As it turns out, the public is a diverse lot with widely variable ideas, knowledge, and values. What seems obvious as the role of government to one person is an absolute overreach to someone else and an infringement on somebody’s rights. Such debates occur continually in every town, county, and state across the country. That’s where my Quaker faith comes in.

It is my role to enter the public fray on the topic of sewage, a topic most of us don’t want to spend much time thinking about. For most of us, it is enough that the water goes down the drain and the waste gets flushed away. Of course, we all want to be sure that sewage is cleaned up before it enters our drinking water. On that, our diverse public agrees – a shared value, a shared vision even! Ah, but how to get there? On that we have plenty of disagreement.

This is when I get to put key elements of my Quaker faith into practice. First, I listen to people – I try to listen with openness and for the deeper messages people are trying to convey. I assume they are speaking their truths and I try to listen for what those truths might be. This often means letting some ranting roll past at the start of many conversations, acknowledging frustrations, listening to people’s concerns, and then checking to see if I’ve understood. If I can get that far with someone, we can sometimes enter into a dialogue and explore options that might address our concerns. At other times, my role is limited to passing along to policy makers the concerns that I have heard expressed.

Another key aspect of my Quaker faith that I get to practice regularly is trying to avoid the “us versus them” mindset. Believing that there is that of God in everyone makes this easier. At my best, I can help others see value in everyone, too. At my worst, I also slip into “us versus them.” Continued centering and deep breaths help bring me back to my better self and to recognize the truth that we are all interconnected.

My job brings that interconnection into my awareness every day. Even though my official role is to focus on the “away” functions of septic systems, it also highlights the reality that there is no such thing as “away.” Waste flows from the toilet and drains to a septic system somewhere in the yard, where it is treated. At the end of that treatment, the water trickles into the soil for final cleanup by our friends the soil microbes, and finally, it enters the groundwater, which our county uses for drinking water.

Everyone poops. We all share in creating sewage. It’s hard to point the finger at someone else and put all the blame on them or on their “type.” This makes sewage easier to contend with than many public issues.

During the past several years, our county has been updating our Septic Management Plan. This is one of the many dull documents that provide guidance to government agencies on the specifics of how to do their work. Our document-revision process started well. A diverse citizens’ stakeholder committee worked on the plan for a year and then made unanimous recommendations. Consensus! Sewage as a unifying force! Happy times for a Quaker Environmental Health Specialist! However, when the draft plan was shared with the wider community, the s*#@ hit the fan. Our mutual sewage, particularly how to pay to manage it, became a divisive issue.

The journey is not over – neither for me nor for our Septic Management Plan. The people in my county will continue to face opportunities for growth as we discern a way forward for our sewage and for our common faith in each other.  ~~~

Jane Mountjoy-Venning has been part of Olympia Friends Meeting (NPYM) for over thirty years, where she listens for the Spirit and helps care for the Meeting’s septic system.

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