When I heard Jordan’s story, I knew I wouldn’t forget it. Jordan is a young medical practitioner who volunteered in Honduras. I need to share what happened – especially this Lent, a time of renewal.
In 2010, Jordan traveled to the outskirts of Honduras’ capital city of Tegucigalpa. As a young radiologist, she was there to assist with much needed basic medical services at a community center called Campamento Betel (Camp Betel). Soon after her arrival she bonded with a new young friend and patient, a full-of-life nine-year-old boy who enjoyed soccer and laughing with the other children of Camp Betel.
The boy had come to the medical clinic because an infection had spread to his left eye. Jordan and her team diagnosed what’s called a Neglected Tropical Disease. Every year NTDs are so widespread that they impact 1.4 billion people, 500 million of whom are children. They prescribed a course of treatment, the key to which was a steady routine of hand and face washing with clean water.
A simple answer to avert further problems, right?
A year later Jordan returned to Camp Betel for a second tour with the clinic. She was surprised to see the young boy back at the clinic. The infection had grown and now formed a tumor over his left eye and part of his face. The once cheerful child was morose, dark, and distant.
Despite following doctor’s orders, his parents were shocked that their son’s condition had worsened. The doctors were not.
Water around Camp Betel is unsafe. Like one sixth of the world’s population, this family has neither safe water nor appropriate sanitation. For them, water – the foundation of life – is a disease-ridden gateway to illness. The sad truth is that many diseases would be prevented if safe water resources were consistently available.
In fact, the World Health Organization lists 25 dangerous diseases as “water-related,” with something between three to six million deaths, mostly affecting children in developing regions – due to unsafe water.
This is not Jesus’ vision of God’s commonwealth on earth as in heaven. Christianity, like most world religions, sees water as special, sacred.
Jesus understood why. Water is the source of all life and the means for blessing, baptism and purification. The Bible names water 722 times. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me water to drink…” (Matthew 25:35). God founded the earth “upon the seas, and established it upon the flood” (Psalm 24: 1-2) but as “a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again.” (Job 14:11)
Christ lived and died to call us to a new community – where preventing tragedies such as the one that befell this little Honduran boy becomes part of our mission. God dared to become human so that in a boy who once loved soccer, and whose name just happens to be Cristian, we could see the human face of God.
When 11-year-old Cristian died from complications from a treatable disease simply because he did not have access to clean water, I believe part of the Divine Heart also died – and each of us was diminished as that unique, unrepeatable gift of human life was wasted.
Cristian’s death is an injustice: to him, to his parents and community, and to the young doctor who had to see him die. It is an injustice that our world, the lack of safe water and sanitation has become the leading killer of children, taking over 8,000 young lives every single day.
Christ’s death, and Cristian’s, calls on us to do better. At this time of Lenten reflection, we are reminded that Christ sacrificed for us and that we are to give of ourselves in the hopes of building a bit of Heaven here on Earth. Behind this wonderful and meaningful symbolism, God wants us to face injustice and combat wrong. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
For Christians not to respond as children die from preventable and treatable infections because they don’t have safe water is to look the other way again as an innocent victim’s life is squandered.
We can curtail malnutrition, prevent disease, and reduce poverty. We can support new methods of sustainable farming. We can promote girls’ education and gender equality. But it all depends on the foundation of clean water and sanitation – even peace cannot be achieved when some have and others don’t have something as basic to life as water.
And the Good News is, unlike many complicated problems, the solutions to this global crisis really are within our reach. We have the technology. We can be the leaders needed. What’s unconscionable for us as Christians is taking for granted our access to clean water and sanitation while a solvable deadly crisis continues to decimate people across this shared globe.
As we lead up to Lent, let’s reflect on ways that the meaning of Jesus’ life and message can call us to action. As Christians, our communities, churches, and schools can be among the world’s leaders to make a “water for all” vision a life-giving reality. Water – fundamental to our Scriptures and to our futures. With our voices, votes and wallets we need to make sure all development work includes water and sanitation at its core.
I believe that Jesus would have found a way to wash Cristian’s eye, again giving to God’s people the Living Water.
For more information and ways to get involved:
www.er-d.org/Promote_Health_Fight_Disease [Episcopal Relief and Development]
www.faithsforsafewater.org [free resources for all faiths]
Waiting4Water.org [free resources specifically for Lent]
www.h20forlifeschools.org [free service learning projects for religious and secular schools]
The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski is Dean of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York).