Not Jeff Kyser, a software developer from Alabama. In March, Kyser was one of a team of eight volunteers from First Church in Huntsville, Ala., who traveled to a Mayan village in the Yucatán in Mexico to oversee the installation of a water filtration system in the community of Quintana Roo — a project that’s part of the Living Waters for the World program.
Living Waters for the World, a ministry of the Synod of the Living Waters, trains volunteers to teach others to build and operate relatively inexpensive filtration systems that produce clean water for people who need it.
So far, Living Waters, which installed its first water system in 1996, has trained more than 800 volunteers from 13 faith groups, volunteers who have come from all over the United States and from eight other countries. And those volunteers have installed 279 water systems in 20 countries.
Quintana Roo does have a municipal water system, but it’s only turned on for a few hours in the morning and again in the afternoon, and doesn’t produce water clean enough to drink. “That was very weird for us,” Kyser said. “They have just gotten used to the fact that the toilets don’t flush at certain times and the faucets don’t work at certain times.”
For drinking, families buy five-gallon jugs of water and “they’ve learned to use that stuff sparingly,” because of the expense, Kyser said.
The new system provides clean water for much less than what people were paying before and “that makes a huge difference in their disposable income,” Kyser said. They live on $30 or $40 a week for a family.
When the installation was complete, the Alabama volunteers and people from the community gathered for a dedication service. A local church leader had helped to build the structure that houses the water purification system. He built it in faith before Living Waters decided to come to Quintana Roo, certain that someone would arrive to provide clean water for the people he loves.
The man had heard of other towns in the region that now had clean water. His faith had grown strong through the illness of one of his children. “He knew that God would provide,” said Mary Romer, a nurse from Huntsville who went to Quintana Roo to teach local women about health care and hygiene and lead a Bible school for children.
For many in the U.S., the reality that more than a billion people around the world do not have access to safe, clean drinking water is hard to get their minds and hearts around. But the World Health Organization estimates three million people, many of them children, die each year from illnesses connected to contaminated water.
Romer’s congregation works with people struggling to make it right there in Huntsville — running a food pantry and cooking for a homeless mission, for example — so “we know we have the poor,” she said. “But there’s no place we can’t get clean water. Clean water is key to life. … The reality that there are so many people for whom a basic life need isn’t being met is really hard to see.”
Wil Howie, a Presbyterian minister who founded the Living Waters program, was inspired to do so after seeing firsthand the living conditions in other places when he served in the Army and traveled on his own to India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and further.
Later, as a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, he learned from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann that “you cannot separate body from soul.”
So the motto of the ministry is “Jesus Christ is living water for our body and soul.” As Howie asks: “How do you say ‘Good News’ to someone, if they’re drinking dirty water?”
To some extent, the ministry took flight slowly, said Steve Young, administrator of the Living Waters for the World program. After seminary, Howie couldn’t get the thought of providing clean water out of his mind; he started meeting with water engineers to see what was possible; then took his idea to the synod’s hunger action enablers and in time won approval from the synod.
But it wasn’t until some years later, after installing a number of systems and becoming frustrated with how slow progress was being made, that the program’s leaders had what Young calls an “a-ha moment” – floating the idea of not just installing water systems themselves, but of training volunteers to teach people in other countries how to do the work.
The first “Clean Water U” class in 2004, advertised totally by word-of-mouth, drew 50 people from seven states, from California to Massachusetts. The Clean Water U sessions themselves have become “transformative experiences,” Young said.
“I love doing this,” said Pierce Buford, a fourth-generation Presbyterian from Birmingham, Ala., who’s been to all 20 Clean Water U sessions as one of the support volunteers.
“Things happen that we don’t ask for, pray for, don’t know that we need. It just happens. … It’s a response to the Great Commission,” Jesus’ instruction that his followers spread the gospel to all the nations. “It’s a way that everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest, can be involved. And everybody needs water.”
What Living Waters does not do.
• It does not send volunteers out to put in water filtration systems all by themselves. It trains them to teach others to do it. Living Waters volunteers attend the organization’s Clean Water U, at the Hopewell Camp and Conference Center in Oxford, Miss., – where they learn the nuts and bolts of installing and maintaining water systems and of teaching the basics of health and hygiene. Then the volunteers train people who actually live in the communities that will be served by the water systems to install and repair the systems. So far, 20 Clean Water U sessions have been held in Mississippi, and a second Clean Water U is set to open next fall at Calvin Crest Camp and Conference Center, in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Fresno.
• It doesn’t just focus on hardware. The volunteers also teach people from the community how to teach others about health and hygiene — how, for example, not to pour clean water into contaminated bottles; or how washing hands in clean water before eating can prevent diarrhea and other diseases. For those whose families may have drunk from the same water source for generations, the idea that going somewhere else and hauling water from a new system might not intuitively seem better, Young said. But Maria Medina, a nurse who runs health clinics in Reynosa, Mexico, has told the Living Waters team that “clean water was medicine” when they had it, people did not get sick.
• It doesn’t try to do everything. “We have a small-scale, community-sized clean water system for communities where there is available but contaminated water for human consumption,” Howie said. The system is designed to serve from 250 to 2,000 people, producing a gallon of clean water per person per day. Living Waters doesn’t deal with access to water or dig wells. “Our niche is in the water-treatment side of things,” Howie said.
• The volunteers don’t dash in for a week and leave. Each volunteer group from Living Waters works in partnership with local people – setting up a “clean water covenant” to work cooperatively for at least three years with a partner group with a governing body, such as a church, a hospital, or a community organization, some of which turn the water treatment system into a micro-business, to earn a small profit that is then poured back into community resources.
Some of those partnerships grow out of relationships the church volunteers already have established. For example, the Huntsville church has worked for more than five years now with Las Pascal, a Christian school in the city of Mérida. When the volunteers went to Quintana Roo, some students connected with Las Pascal, including Olga Gonzales, who’s living with Kyser’s family while attending college in Huntsville, served as translators.
The focus is on building relationships that will last over time. “You don’t just show up with a system and say, ‘We love Jesus and we brought you clean water,’” Buford said.
The volunteers start to learn “what does it mean to be in relationship with someone,” Young said. “What does it mean when the relationship is more important than what you’re doing? That’s an odd concept for Americans who are used to doing things for people. … It’s been wonderful to watch people rethink ‘What does mission mean?’”
For the Huntsville church, the connections with Christians in Mexico began when they started supporting students at Las Pascal school with scholarships. Teenagers from the church went on mission trips to visit the school. Students from Las Pascal traveled to Huntsville to teach Vacation Bible School. Olga Gonzales came to attend community college for two years, to earn an associate’s degree, hoping to return to the school to teach English. When she finished, the Kyser family asked her to stay longer, to complete a four-year degree, and are paying her tuition. Jeff Kyser keeps up with some of the Las Pascal students through Facebook. He says of Olga: “She’s like a daughter to us.”
Romer, the nurse from Alabama, said when she visited Quintana Roo, “they fed us on an open fire. They were cooking the most wonderful food, offering the most wonderful hospitality. Here in the South, we think we have hospitality, but wow, they were amazing. …You can give money, but when you develop those relationships, that’s how God intends for us to grow in our own faith.”