Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Clean Water U

I first heard of Living Waters for the World  about three years ago on our annual trip to Guatemala. We visited a couple of churches who had recently installed systems. The next year, we saw even more. Then last year, we knew one of our sister church in Dallas was sending a team to install a system and we watched them in action during the week. And I was hooked.

Then the guys from that installation came by our church to show the men of the church how the system works. And Beaven was hooked.

So we registered and packed and set off for what I like to call Grown-Up Camp. My theory is that no one ever outgrows the fun of going off for a week to meet new people, learn new things and eat camp food. A good opportunity to lose a little weight.

On our way to Camp Hopewell in Oxford, Mississippi we took a quick detour through Memphis to check on Elvis (He’s still dead.) and the Sun records studio (which is still alive-- They continue to record music there sometimes.)

Living Waters for the World, just in case you didn’t link on the above like you were supposed to, is a program of the Living Waters Presbytery. They started out in the early 90's installing water purification systems in underdeveloped countries. After a few years of wearing themselves out doing so many installations they realized they could teach others how to do it. And that’s how Clean Water U began.

We were kept busy from breakfast to bedtime. We didn’t have a single hour of unplanned time until Thursday just before dinner and even that was a mistake of sorts. We were supposed to have two hour-long presentations that afternoon but my group, who was quite rebellious, took only ten minutes for our presentation, giving the whole camp some much appreciated free time. Naps, anyone?

They teach three basic classes: The one that goes by the title “101” teaches people (me in this case) how to test water, evaluate the possibility of installing a system and plan a trip. The 102 class was to learn how to teach health and hygiene to the communities who will be using the water. And the 103 class taught you how to install a standard water treatment system using either ozone or ultra violet rays to disinfect the water. There are also two other more detailed components for more sophisticated systems like solar powered and reverse osmosis.

Sorry about that “reverse osmosis” part. Wake up and let’s continue. I’ll try not to do that again.

One of the guys in my group called it the “lawyer’s class.” Our instruction material included a whole CD of spreadsheets evaluating sustainability and cost effectiveness and a bunch of other dry but extremely helpful material. The disk had formulas, drop down menus and tables with information on current cost of materials or the latest health information. It was a bit intimidating. It was also the best collection of resources I’ve ever seen. I asked at one point if the CD was dummy-proof, if I could mess it up, and was reassured that I couldn’t. We’ll see.

We had ten people in our class and somehow around Tuesday we acquired a habit of spontaneously muttering “blah; blah, blah” very softly and gently while any of our three instructors was speaking. It had a lilting cadence to it. It reminded me of the seagulls in Finding Nemo who would claim, “Mine…Mine…Mine."  No one remembers who started it, when or why. Any one of us might start and the rest would chime in as an act of solidarity. I could hear my mother rolling in her grave. I’m pretty sure we sounded disrespectful but nothing was farther from the truth. I think the “blah, blah” was to either indicate that we got the point or possibly that we had reached information overload. To be honest, I can’t say why we did it. I am smart enough to know that an inside joke is only funny to those people who are inside. I just know we felt so much better afterwards. No disrespect intended. Honest.

It was a very information-packed, overwhelming class.

Beaven took 103, which was the Installation component. He can now put together and take apart a system that will filter the water then kill any bacteria using Ozonation. Other systems use Ultra Violet light and still others use Reverse Osmosis. Oops.

The main challenge for these students is not how to assemble the system. The challenge is instructing someone else how to do it. And through a translator. In short, to stay “hands off” and just instruct. The in-country people will have to know their system well enough to maintain it after we leave.

Living Waters for the World had a solar powered water system in Haiti that survived the earthquake.  I heard the story of how the Haitian guy in charge of operating the system dug through the rubble to get the system back up and running.  In the aftermath of any disaster safe water is always the most crucial element in the community.  Solar power meant they weren't dependent on electrical lines. There were a lot of teams at camp who were bound for Cuba and Haiti.

The most interesting thing both of these classes did was test the lake water at the camp. You take a water sample and add to it a medium that is basically “bacteria food.” The water started out kind of yellow gold. Within 48 hours it had turned a frightening black. And it also smelled to high heaven. This showed the water had harmful bacteria in it.

When it was time to dispose of it, it had become positively toxic and we were warned not to participate if we had any kind of cut on our hands. Before you pour it out you kill the bacteria by adding bleach to the water which almost immediately turned clear again but was not safe to drink. Scary stuff.

Beaven and I both want to try this on our own pond water. Not sure what we’ll do if it shows up dangerous. We never drink out of the pond, anyway.

The third component is the Educators’ class, 102. They had as many cool toys as the installation guys. Maybe more. While the installation people have pipe cutters and Swiss Army knives, the educators have laminated posters, cloth banners, stuffed animals, skits, songs, and science project-worthy experiments on germs. Their job on a trip is to teach the community teachers then assist in a second class while the new teachers teach the community.

Always and only for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth and washing the baby”—I heard this so many times; including one song sung in Spanish, that it became a mantra for the weekend. I was a little confused by the “always and only” part until the message settled in. “Always” because it takes only one germ to make you sick. You can never let your guard down.  And “only” because clean water is so precious that you wouldn’t want to waste it on something stupid like washing the car in it. Like we do here in the US.

We forget because it is so easy here. We wash our car in drinking water. We water the lawn with it. We bathe in it. In the United States we flush our toilets with water pure enough to drink.

Everything you do at Living Waters for the World is geared to helping a community become self-sustaining within three years. By that time, a community should be able to make enough money from selling water to pay for the cost of running the system.We had a spreadsheet to calculate that.   The teachers should have educated the community on the importance of healthy water and how to use it. The installation guys should have taught the in-country people how and when to change the filters.

Worship was wonderful. We met twice a day, morning and evening, to sing and reflect. The chapel at the camp is the original anti-bellum St Andrews Presbyterian Church. The paint-peeling walls were thick pine boards. The floor was pine. Even the ceiling was wooden tongue-in-groove slab. This provided fantastic acoustics. It was a little like being inside the sound box of a fine guitar. Our group of about 40 fit the chapel perfectly and the sound flowed over us like a gentle rain. We usually had the windows opened and the staff told us this was good so that we could hear the outside world of campers doing energizers on one side of us and the lawn mowers on the other side. The real world became part of our worship.



The worship on the last morning included communion. Wil Howie poured the grape juice into a clear goblet then added some of the water from the camp lake that had been cleaned by the system. Water that was now clear, clean and gloriously healthy. That’s when it hit me. Jesus used wine for the Last Supper because the water was not safe.

I had long ago heard that in Jesus' time wine was commonly drunk not to get a buzz or for the taste but so that the alcohol could kill the germs in the water. After spending whole week learning about water I had come to appreciate a cool clear drink of safe water. Surely, Christ would have used that instead of wine if it had been available to him. What is more basic than bread and water? Wine must have been his fall-back drink when he couldn’t serve water.

I will never think of communion the same again.

The elements sat on a table covered by a cloth map of the world. As we walked up to take communion by intinction we were to take a stone and place it on the country we had a connection with. I laid my stone on Guatemala then stopped to take in the whole map. I was at the end of the line and the stones had all been placed. A small pile of stones on Guatemala, some on Haiti and some on Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula and other Mexican spots. A few others on other countries. But so much of the cloth was still empty! Not because they didn’t need the water. But because their country was in such turmoil that it wasn’t safe to travel there. Or because the place was so remote it was almost impossible to get there. And there are also places where the water is so bad that our systems won't help.  The map was showing us needs that were unmet.



I felt very sad looking at the flat spaces with no stones. I touched them with my hand trying to soothe them with my fingers because that was all I could do.

We have so many resources in our country--enough that we have love and strength left over to give to others. But I thought of the places in the world my love cannot reach. And all I could do was touch their empty outline on a cloth map and pray.

When the week is finished, when all is said and done, it always comes back to prayer. That is all we are ever left with. Prayer.


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