Lent: Shared Priority

Children collecting unclean water in Mali. Photo: ©2011 Justin Douglass/World Vision

Children collecting unclean water in Mali.
Photo: ©2011 Justin Douglass/World Vision

by Steve Haas, Chief Catalyst for World Vision

The casual tour of the impoverished Malawian village seemed to have no formal organization other than to observe various points of communal disappointment. We were a group of Christian leaders touched by a vision to walk with an African community and in the words of John 10:10, experience with them, “life in all of its fullness.”

Having been given extensive orientation and cultural training stateside, our travelers were a loose assortment of ages and gender, specifically cautioned to avoid language that might encourage unrealistic expectation amongst our hosts, even to the point of not mentioning World Vision. Evidently, the very affiliation of the Christian organization might create a perceived contract of partnership when in fact that decision had not yet been reached by staff on the ground. Ours was to look, listen and learn.

Not 30 minutes past a small welcome reception, the village elder ushered us to a bare stretch of sun-beaten earth under a denuded tree lacking foliage. Standing before large rocks strewn about the trunk, we were informed that these were in fact the chairs and desks for the primary school. A second location of interest was a weed infested crooked pile of stacked bricks. These homemade blocks represented the dream of a people for a school, inspiration dashed due to the lack of a building blueprint, something they had been promised by others but never realized.

The most devastating point of our community excursion took us to the water hole where life’s most important resource was to be drawn and leveraged. The width of the winding natural trench told us that in season the riverbed was adequate to provide for the people’s needs. But this was the dry season. Community members, almost all women, were forced to dig deep into the stream bed to extract what meager brown liquid they could forage for their family’s daily supply. As if this was not enough burden to shoulder, we were informed that recently the new teacher to the school under the tree had dragged himself to the hospital after becoming infected with cholera from this exact water source.

Standing and considering our small tour stops, I had to consider how many other rural settings suffered from these developmental obstacles. Privately enraged that anyone should have to endure such devastating hardships, I felt the urge to shake my fist toward the designer of the created order, the one who claimed to have the power to “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isaiah 44:3). Could He not descend far enough to remember these desperate ones whose every day challenges threatened to undo them?

Having led many like discoveries in the past, my heavenward hissy fit was confronted by memories of other reactions fellow travelers had made when introduced to another’s daily obstacles. Spending little time venting a complaint or seeking objects of blame, they attempted to uncover a community’s treasured assets and stay long enough to understand a people’s developmental priorities. They created checks that would hold themselves accountable in keeping their promises in their walk with their global neighbors.

Each of us on this journey were reminded of Jesus’ identification with water that truly satisfied and challenged by the this potent symbol in which as His earthly hands and feet we were in some way responsible to help to provide:

“But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:14

That afternoon, prior to boarding our vans for a long ride home, I was given the opportunity to hear from the village headman one last time. Sensing this would be a good time for closure and affirming the need for the access to clean water I asked what he felt the community needed. Without hesitation, the wizened and stooping elder statesman replied, “a school.”

But didn’t the community have a poisoned creek that was killing their people, I countered publically. Surely, he had overlooked this essential resource that needed primary attention. The community leader paused a moment, perhaps more for my benefit than his, and remarked simply, “If we had a school the children would learn how to bring our community clean and sustainable water… we would never have that problem again.” I bowed to his wisdom and forethought in having a long vision for his people in spite of considerable immediate challenges.

I write this nearly ten years later, reflecting on a few of our encounter’s life lessons. As a group of western leaders, we did make the decision to walk with this wounded village although given the depth of understanding they have given us, we prefer to think that they were gifts given to us. Realizing our own sense of insecurity in how to touch the brokenness of these friends, we opted to listen to what they deemed wise and allow them to lead us on this mutual trek of transformation. Our first project together was indeed a school initially using the unused bricks as they were intended. Then another with real roofs and walls, desks, chairs and materials.

Sensing they had been heard, the mending community directed the formation of a water committee and worked with World Vision to create new well points with capacity to draw a year round fresh supply. Eventually the inputs were so profound as to draw neighboring communities to request equal treatment and blessings in education, health, and nutrition were multiplied. The metaphor became flesh, untapped potential was realized and hearts became tender to the one who not only heard their common plea, but answers in ways “well up to eternal life.”

This story is part of Women of Vision’s 2014 Lent series “A Spring of Living Water.” Read more stories in this series.

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