Climate impacts, of course, are felt domestically as well, and when disaster strikes, the burden of disaster relief falls heavily on faith-based civic institutions and houses of worship. Churches and Christian charities are poised to become much more experienced in handling the material consequences of accelerating climate change, whether they acknowledge the causes or not.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.
Justice demands that Americans act to defend everybody’s right to water.
Water is one of earth’s most precious resources. Life exists because of it and cities are built next to it. Wars are even fought over it. Although the UN recognized the right to safe and clean drinking water in 2010 in Resolution 64/292, people all over the world still live without adequate access to it. In 2008 Pope Benedict said that “the use of water — which is seen as a universal and inalienable right — is related to the growing and urgent needs of those living in poverty”.
However, water poverty is not just a problem globally; in fact, water poverty exists much closer to home. 40 percent of Navajo Indians don’t have running water or a toilet in their homes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. For non-Native Americans, that number is just 0.6 percent.
Hundreds-of-thousands of Americans are living without access to water. Many of them are forced to travel by foot for miles to collect water, sometimes in the middle of winter. Over the past few months I have been the American Projects Fellow with DIGDEEP Water, learning about the Navajo Nation water crisis and helping to raise awareness about the Navajo Water Project to build a well to serve 250 Navajo families near Thoreau, NM. DIGDEEP is one of the only nonprofit organizations addressing water poverty in the United States. But America’s water poverty crisis is too big for one nonprofit to address.
While estimates vary, the average household consumption of water in the U.S. reaches 110 gallons per-person, per-day (a safe estimate between the averages published by water.org and waterinfo.org). But hundreds-of-thousands of people living in Navajo communities like the one where DIGDEEP works use less than 10. How is this possible?
Structural issues, many of which have political and historical roots, make it incredibly difficult to build the infrastructure necessary for clean water to reach families on reservations. Homes can be up to 140 miles apart in places like the community where DIGDEEP is working, partially due to the U.S. government’s policy in the 19th century “to isolate and concentrate Indians in places with few natural resources, far from contact with the developing U.S. economy and society,” according to Gary D. Sandefur at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reservations like the Navajo Nation are “off the grid” - that is, not tapped into the US water and electricity supply. Part of the (in my opinion, unjust) purpose of this strategy was to make it more appealing to move off the reservations and into cities, where the US government assumed American Indians would be likely to assimilate.
Another major challenge of trying to build a well in the Navajo Nation is contamination of the water sources. Uranium mining in the Navajo Nation has had many irreparable, terrible effects on the environment, well-documented by investigative journalist Judy Paternak in Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos. In order to avoid contaminated water, DIGDEEP will drill 2000 feet to reach clean water, a very costly task. In fact, this project will cost $450,000, compared to a well in South Sudan, which cost $8,000.
A lack of clean water contributes to overall poverty; living without a sink or toilet severely limits health, education, personal security, and economic growth. More than 44 percent of Navajo children live below the poverty line, according to the US Census from 2010, which is twice the national average. In order to escape the cycle of poverty, Navajo families need access to water in their homes. To accomplish this, DIGDEEP’s Navajo Water Project will require a new well, fill station, and the construction of gravity-fed water systems outside local homes to successfully address these families’ water needs.
In November, I went with DIGDEEP to the project site. We arrived on a Monday morning, the sky so blue it hurt my eyes, the burnt orange cliffs standing guard over the reservation, and the air crisp with the edge of winter. The DIGDEEP crew gathered around the delivery truck at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission with Darlene Arviso, who delivers water to Navajo families every month. The big yellow truck that carries water to Navajo families is a permanent traveling feature of the region, and children run out of their homes when they see it coming, shouting in excitement.
The role of local organizations like the Indian Mission is crucial to the sustainability of a water project like this one. The Mission is almost entirely run by members of the Navajo community it serves. While we were there to collect footage for DIGDEEP’s holiday campaign, the reality is that an organization like DIGDEEP can only do so much; it’s because of partnerships with local nonprofits like St. Bonaventure Indian Mission that DIGDEEP is confident that 250 more families will soon have reliable clean water access. What makes this project sustainable is that the core of it depends on Navajo women like Darlene helping her own people. Active participation by families, Navajo Chapters (local governance), and regulatory bodies will help ensure long-term sustainability. What is important is that the Navajo Water Project is community-led and unique to the people it serves.
Darlene delivers a limited amount of water from a well up to 70 miles away, but by the middle of the month, most families run out and resort to collecting additional water from other sources like open livestock troughs. Many keep their water in buckets and barrels on their front porches, which must be moved inside during the winter. The Navajo Water Project will improve conditions by providing every home with an elevated water tank and solar heating element, using gravity to feed sinks and toilets year ‘round.
Darlene not only delivers water, but also stops to check on families who may not see other visitors from the mission for weeks. Before delivering water, she also drives the school bus on the reservation. Although she spends all day bringing water from home to home, hogan to hogan, counseling along the way, at the end of the school day, Darlene is back at the wheel of the school bus, ready to bring children back home. Her face breaks into a smile when she talks about her work. “I love my job,” she told us.
Reservations are often hidden from sight; the real injustices suffered by neighbors so close to home are often hard to see. Justice demands that Americans act to defend everybody’s right to water. The right of the Navajo to water access at home is one that all Americans need to work much harder to defend. The Navajo Water Project is a small step toward defending that right, but we have a very long way to go.
-Tala Strauss is a recent graduate of Gordon College, where she studied political science and philosophy. Currently, she is interning with DIGDEEP Water and the Center for Public Justice. She lives in Los Angeles and on social media. @talastrauss
On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.
I spent 10 days in Florida this summer, which probably doesn’t sound too unique- in fact, Orlando is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. But what if I told you about a town 18 miles from the Magical Mouse that has toxic drinking water, limited medical services, a high rate of teen pregnancies, and high illiteracy rates?
The town of Bithlo was the destination for this mission trip. A group from my church’s youth group served with United Global Development (UGO), a non-profit community development organization founded by Timothy McKinney. Our group helped run a children's camp full of games, Bible lessons, crafts, a reading room, and lunch for children in the community. We also painted buildings and classrooms that will be used by Orange County Academy, a private school on the UGO campus.
This project, called Transformation Village, is designed to bring hope to the people of Bithlo who are often forgotten by local and state officials since becoming unincorporated in the 1930s. Which means, for nearly 80 years Bithlo has not been under any local town-led municipality or representation to resolve the mess caused by many different issues such as a vacant dump that has been the cause of so much pollution and health problems. Last year Orange County, where Bithlo is located, finally paid to have water from many of the wells in Bithlo tested to ensure the residents have safe drinking water.
Mr. McKinney operates on the basis that everyone should be treated with dignity and love. With this mindset volunteers, staff, and participants delve into relationships and advocate for people in Bithlo to develop a sense of community, improved health care, basic needs, education, transportation, housing, and taking care of the environmental issues in the area. Until last year the only way to receive medical services was to call 9-1-1 and take an ambulance to see doctors in the hospital in Orlando about any issue- minor or major. Thanks to UGO, there is now a small clinic open five days a week to work with more minor health concerns in Bithlo. Another problem is transportation. Since there is no transportation system, virtually everyone walks or bikes. Many of the people I met told me that several residents have been hit by cars on the one main road through town because of this. This is an ongoing concern that UGO wants to work on improving for the people of Bithlo.
UGO takes seriously Jesus’ call to live an abundant life centered in the hope of the Gospel message that gives people purpose rather than just settling for “existing.” Adults and children in Bithlo are affected by a generational cycle of economic, relational, emotional, and spiritual poverty. The majority of children we spent time with at the Kid’s Camp lacked stable family lives, proper bathing and hygiene, and wanted to be hugged because other people in their lives wouldn’t do that for them. The trip was an incredibly impactful relational and spiritual experience for me.
By interacting with the people of Bithlo, I learned how to serve everyone I met with love, and saw a holistic Gospel lived out in serving people’s spiritual and material needs. The truth is that even if you don’t struggle with material poverty, we all have an area of poverty in our lives- relational, emotional, spiritual- where we need God’s grace, love, and hope in context of relationships with people who want to point us to a more purposeful life and secure identity in Christ.
Community development and justice ministry must give Christ and his Word centrality so we will not lose focus of our mission- bearing the ministry of reconciliation towards a holistic healing of communities around us. I love John 1:14 in the Message version because it says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I challenge you to not just exist as a part of your neighborhood but to really “move in” just as Jesus did- making relationships, sacrificially serving others without making an effort to benefit from it, and pointing others towards God. (Above: United Global Development's main building in Bithlo.)
I have hope for Bithlo because God has put totally unqualified people in a situation that requires faith and total dependence on Him for everything on a daily basis. As more volunteers and mission teams partner to encourage the town and local churches, small steps will create sustainable change, futures will be changed, and people will know that God truly has His hand on all the work done because of the sacrifice and community modeled by the leadership.
-Andrew Kruse is currently working on church and school partnerships while studying Pastoral Studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, OR. He is actively involved as a leader in The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, and Central Bible Church student ministries.
As Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, putting off climate action comes at a steep cost—and one that the government may not always be willing to pay. But we all need to play our part to build the momentum that will turn the tide on our current climate crisis. In the meantime, the Church can and should play an active role in leading the charge for climate action, and in helping communities prepare for and recover from the inevitable impacts of worsening extreme weather.
It has been a little over a month since Hurricane Sandy swept up the Atlantic leaving large-scale damage in its wake. Looking back on its aftermath and subsequent relief efforts, can we yet say that justice has been served?