CAMP HOPEWELL • At his first miracle recorded in the gospels, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
The Rev. Wilbur “Wil” Howie of Water Valley can’t turn water into wine, but he and the nonprofit he helped organize – Living Waters for the World (LWW) – have spent the past 26 years turning dirty water into drinkable water in Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ghana and other countries where clean, uncontaminated water can have nearly miraculous effects on public health.
The 71-year-old Howie is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) minister and the former executive director of LWW – an ecumenical global mission whose goal is to partner with communities in the developing world to install low-cost, low-maintenance water filtration systems.
Howie said the theological underpinnings for LWW are found in Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of Matthew.
“American religion is so spiritualized and self-involved,” he said. “But the only biblical account of Jesus’ criteria for heaven and hell is not about right beliefs; it’s about water and food for those who need it: ‘I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’”
A lifelong cave-exploring enthusiast, Howie said his adventure travels in Europe, the Middle East and South America as a young man opened his eyes to the broad resource disparity in different parts of the world.
“My travels opened my eyes to the way most people live,” he said. “We are such a rich, privileged and spoiled society.”
Howie, who officially retired from LWW in 2013 and now serves as an ambassador, said the organization was founded in 1993 as an outreach of the Living Waters Synod of the Presbyterian Church (USA), though the idea had been germinating in Howie’s mind since his days in seminary.
“The epiphany came back in 1989,” he said. “I was on a break between classes. I picked up a copy of the ‘Presbyterian Survey’ and read a small, one-column story on the front page that said three million children a year die from water-borne illnesses.”
While it would be several years before LWW took shape, Howie said that moment was the catalyst.
“That grabbed my attention,” he said. “The idea that three million mothers would cry themselves to sleep because they’d lost a child under 5 to dirty water. I thought, ‘We can do something about that!’ It was like a bell ringing. It wasn’t an auditory voice, but it wouldn’t let me loose.”
Howie said LWW’s early years were ones of frustration and experimentation.
“It took us three years to put our first project together,” he said. “We tried a project in Cameroon in west Africa, which didn’t work. We finally got our technological feet on the ground and got one up and running just across the border in Mexico.”
Howie said after those early years, he and other LWW organizers knew they needed a structural change to make the organization more effective.
“In the first 10 years we had done 15 systems – about one-and-a-half per year,” he said. “We decided we were doing it all wrong. We needed to train other people how to do it.”
Howie said he and other LWW leaders shifted their focus away from hands-on installations, instead concentrating on educating church-based groups through “Clean Water U.”
“In 10 months we designed a curriculum, recruited a faculty, built a facility and raised $95,000,” he said. “We held our first Clean Water U class in March of ‘04. We had people from California and Massachusetts in that first contingent.”
Hosted at Camp Hopewell near Oxford, Clean Water U has hosted more than 2,000 volunteers since its inception. Howie said the five-day Clean Water U course prepares teams to partner with their host communities to build and maintain the water purification systems.
“This is the mother campus,” he said. “Each session has a minimum of 25 students. We started with two sessions a year and now we’re at four. The last session had 54 people.”
Howie said the paradigm shift toward equipping teams has paid big dividends.
“We’re just about to install our 1,000th system,” he said. “LWW has always been a ‘bottom-up’ rather than a ‘top-down’ organization. Train, equip and sustain are our three operational verbs.”
Howie said in all the years of working with American volunteers and their host communities all across the world, one experience remains constant.
“The people who have nothing are the happiest as a whole,” he said. “There’s a peace in them, especially if they are believers, that belies their physical reality. And our volunteers always come home feeling blessed and changed by the experience.”