Engineering clean water

When I lived in inner city Oakland, I loved the way folks in our church community could use their careers and professions to serve their neighbors. Teachers, social workers, medical professionals, programmers, attorneys, etc., all found ways to use their skills and background to work with those around them.

Now that I live in Guatemala, doing community development in a small rural community, I love seeing how engineering can radically alter an entire community’s existence. One of the engineers on staff builds water filters out of cement, fills them with three layers of sand, inserts a plastic tube, and voila: contaminated water goes in, 99.9% pure water comes out. I’d explain how this ridiculously simple concept works, but being a social worker, I’ll just post this image:

It works, it’s simple, and it saves lives. It’s estimated that water-borne illnesses account for 1.8 million deaths every year1. These water filters also prevent illness, reducing absenteeism from work for parents and from school for kids. I love being a social worker, but I’m so grateful for engineers’ creative use of their gifts to love their neighbor.

This two-minute video features the community leader where I work demonstrating the use of the filter:

This Lenten season, although I wish I could drink the tapwater here, I’m so grateful I don’t have to hike up the hill like Judith and all her fellow residents do every day. Cheers!

1. World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/burden/en/index.html

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

–Jesus

 

Compassion Renewal or Compassion Fatigue?

We’ve all seen it before—the pattern is always the same.  A natural disaster tragically devastates an already-poor country.  For a week it’s front page news. Politicians make speeches. Reporters flood the scene.  Governments promise aid.  People send money.

But then something happens. Reporters go home.  Governments send a fraction of the promised aid. “Compassion fatigue” sets in. People forget.

That’s why I’m encouraged to find that today, on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, so much media coverage is again being devoted to the continued suffering of the Haitian people.  The Economist, the New York Times, the BBC, and the Boston Globe, among others, all have written detailed updates on the stalled recovery of the US’s oldest neighbor.

For me, the grim message of these reports has been a call to move from compassion fatigue to compassion renewal.  Whenever any of us encounters stories of intractable suffering, we have two choices:

  • Surrender to the temptation to be overwhelmed, choose numbness, and subconsciously avoid such emotional disturbances in the future.
  • Choose hope, renew our compassion, and do our part, even if it is very small compared to the magnitude of the problem.

So why not join me in remembering our brothers and sisters in Haiti today, before you get up from your computer?  If you have a favorite charity, chances are they’re in Haiti.  If you’re not sure who to give to, just take my word for it and give through Partners in Health, who supplied the video above.  They’ve been renowned for their excellent work in Haiti for more than 20 years.

O Lord, we ask that you would give us a compassion as steady and generous as Yours. We pray that You would move Your Body to stand with our brothers and sisters in Haiti so that the justice and redemption of Your Kingdom might come to that devastated island.  Amen.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.    –Galatians 5:9

Update on the ‘Just Giving’ Challenge

Did you know that if everyone in America took our Just Giving Challenge this Christmas, we could collectively end extreme poverty for three years?  That’s right, Americans spend approximately 450 billion dollars each year on Christmas presents and celebrations for their friends and family.  If we would just match that amount with intelligent, intentional giving, we could eliminate all extreme poverty in the entire world (at least according to Jeffrey Sachs’ renowned  The End of Poverty, chapter 15).

So how’s it going? On Black Friday we issued the following Just Giving Challenge: for the first 100 people who give as much to the poor this Christmas as to their family and  friends, we’ll donate $100 to a worthy cause.

So far 21 people have taken the challenge.

21.

That’s not going to end world poverty any time soon.

And yet, I sincerely sense that together we are doing something deeply significant.  We may not change the entire world, but we will definitely be a part of changing the world for a whole lot of people.  So far the 21 of us will make our Christmas matching gifts, plus this blog’s contribution of $2,100.  Even at a conservative estimate, that’s enough money to drill clean water wells for hundreds of people, to prevent thousands of people from getting malaria this year, or to vaccinate tens of thousands of kids from deadly diseases.

Do I hope a lot more people sign up for the Just Giving Challenge? Of course I do. If you haven’t, you could sign up right now.  But even if it’s just us 21, I think it’s a powerful testament to the change that just a few people, making medium-level sacrifices, can bring to God’s world.  Thanks to everyone who’s making a difference this Christmas, whether with us or in some other way!

And for another shot of hopefulness, check out this very inspiring video from the good folks at Advent Conspiracy.

The Story of All Our Stuff

My friend turned me on to this website:  www.storyofstuff.com.  It gives a quick and sobering summary of where all our STUFF comes from.  Our “designed for disposal” economy, the toxins we make, the labor injustices, our overconsumption, and the methods of disposal are all terrible.  Please watch it, decide on what action you can take, and forward it on!  Especially to anyone who doesn’t “get” the issues of sustainability and justice that we’re facing.  Our system is in crisis!

For a focus on electronics, see this website:  www.storyofelectronics.com.

Remembering the Poor: Film Edition

Central do Brasil (Central Station)Sin NombreOsamaBorn Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

I’m writing this from my home in Costa Rica after spending the last ten days in Chicago and Grand Rapids.  After two and a half years in Central America, visiting the US can be quite a jolt.  One of the things that hit me hardest on this trip was way in which most college-educated people in the US are nearly totally insulated from poverty.  It’s almost as though the quiet suburbs, trendy neighborhoods, and antiseptic offices of the professional class have been hermetically sealed off from the poor across town and across the world.  Despite globalization, most of us still live our lives in “gated communities” that keep the disturbing faces of the poor safely out of range.

I am convinced that this sociological reality is one of the most important factors that make biblical giving to the poor so difficult.  If a hungry family watched us eat through the windows of our favorite restaurant, how many of us would turn away?  If a woman brought her daughter dying of diarrhea to our doorstep, we would not refuse the few cents it took to save her.  But because these tragedies take place a car ride or a plane ride away from our daily lives, they become literally forgettable.

Many of us reading this blog do care about the suffering of others, and we want to make a difference, but we find daily life squeezing out our good intentions.  So what can we do? Well, for a start we can do the same thing that Paul did as he kicked off his missionary career: “remember the poor.” (Gal 2:10)  Paul’s commitment to remember the poor resulted in his massive collection for those suffering in Jerusalem, and left a strong mark on the New Testament.  (See, for example, I Cor 16:1-4, II Cor 8 & 9, Romans 15:26-29.)

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of “remembering the poor” as a spiritual discipline—just like praying or reading the Bible.   Of course, there are lots of ways to remember the poor, but let me just suggest one that you could act on even this week—watch a movie.  For me, films have often not only served as windows into the world outside my middle class bubble but they have steeled my resolve to keep giving and stay involved.  So, here are a few recommendations that

1) are not well known

2) are highly rated by critics, and

3) deal with poverty in a nuanced, non-sentimentalized way:

 

  • Central Station. How the lives of a Brazilian street child and an office worker become intertwined.

Central do Brasil (Central Station)

  • Sin Nombre. A harrowing account of gang violence along the Central American immigrant trail to the US.

Sin Nombre

  • Dirty Pretty Things. A brilliant look at the life of African and Turkish immigrants in London.

Dirty Pretty Things

  • Osama. Growing up as an Afghani girl under the Taliban.

Osama

  • Born into Brothels. Hopefully portrays the artistic potential of prostitutes’ children in Calcutta.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

  • Tsotsi. An intensely personal account of inequality in South Africa.

Tsotsi

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these films or others you’d recommend as a way to “remember the poor.”

Small Group Testimony

In this blog, one of our major goals is to create a space to hear people’s stories of living simply in order to give more generously.  So I was excited to randomly find this video, in which  a small group shares their experiences of a Lazarus at the Gate study. I really appreciate the way they took the time to share their testimonies and reflections.

Debt

We recognize that debt is an extremely important issue.

In fact, if someone is deep in credit card debt, we feel that it is better to do whatever it takes to pay it off as quickly as possible, even if that means postponing significant giving. In the long run, you’ll not only be more financially secure, but you’ll be able to free up more to give. Most Christian financial stewardship ministries do a great job of providing resources on budgeting and debt, which is why we don’t reproduce that info on this blog.

But there are drastically fewer voices empowering the church to invest in biblical justice for the poor, so we keep our focus and passion there. In the meantime, here’s just this one bit of profound wisdom on avoiding debt: