WALLULA, Wash. - Daniel Tengbom and Jose Zepeda are helping bring faith to workers at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Wallula.
As the plant's two workplace chaplains, they stand ready to help about 1,250 workers deal with their emotional, personal or spiritual struggles.
The presence of chaplains makes workers feel the presence of God and has a calming influence on them, said Tengbom, who's part of Tyson's chaplaincy program.
The company's core values include a commitment to being faith-friendly. That initiative recently earned the company the 2007 International Spirit at Work Award from Connecticut-based global nonprofit International Center for Spirit at Work.
The workplace is where a majority of people spend most of their time, said Tengbom, one of two part-time chaplains at the plant. And the program is less about providing counsel and more about establishing connections based on mutual respect, said Tengbom, who's Lutheran.
His colleague Zepeda, who belongs to the Riverview Baptist Church in Pasco, sees his part-time job as an extension of his Christian faith to help others. The chaplains, who have been at the plant since 2003, help workers channel their grief and anger and also share in their everyday joys and excitement, Zepeda said.
The program is different from a helpline where people call in for help, said David Tobias, the plant's human resources manager. "This is a more personal interaction," he said.
The service is another job benefit for employees, if they choose to use it, said Art Stricklin, vice president of public relations at Marketplace Chaplains USA in Dallas that provides chaplains to businesses across the U.S. The program aims to help workers cope with stress in a positive way, he said, adding that an unhappy worker means reduced productivity and potentially high turnover for employers.
More companies now have workplace chaplains, said Stricklin, whose father, Gil, a retired Army chaplain, founded the company in 1984. It serves Fortune 500 companies and also small car dealerships. Many people are experiencing uncertainty at the workplace, particularly after 9-11, Stricklin said.
Last year, Tengbom and Zepeda dealt with many angry workers whose jobs were being eliminated. "We would listen to them," Tengbom said.
After workers were done talking, the chaplains would tell them that it was OK to go through the emotions of feeling insecure and angry, he said. They also directed them to WorkSource to help them find new jobs.
Workplace chaplains are neutral and most of their conversations with workers are private. They don't give medical or professional advice or try to push their own religious beliefs, said Tengbom, who also works for an agency providing adult care services in the Tri-Cities.
Workers can get in touch with chaplains whenever they want to, Tobias said.
Some like to meet the chaplains in the cafeteria or in their homes, said Zepeda, who also runs a kitchenware business in Pasco. His quiet presence at the funeral of plant worker Chuy Diaz's mother in 2005 spurred Diaz to reach out to him.
Diaz said he often cried in private in the locker room, feeling a need to talk to someone. And he found Zepeda. He's thankful to him for being there, said the quality assurance inspector who has worked 14 years at the plant.
Tyson's chaplain program also has helped Tengbom and Zepeda appreciate other religious and cultural traditions, both say. The Wallula plant has a diverse work force, which includes among others Bosnians, Vietnamese and Laotians.
"Sharing their personal stories has been a privilege," Tengbom said.