In 1983, three of us from college were chosen to join 15 others and go to Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), West Africa. Upon arrival, we were driven deep into the hot, barren bush and pulled into what appeared to be a scene from National Geographic. Five hours from civilization, our camp had a screened–in building with a tin roof to meet in, another to store gear, and an outhouse with a shower. After a quick meal, we split up to see our work sites. Two of us were taken to the end of a small 20 acre lake, the only surface water for miles.
It was a busy scene. Half naked, burdened and weary people coming and going: gathering water, walking livestock, bathing children, and pausing to rest from the scorching heat under a few mango trees.
The locals were curious and gathered around as the plan was presented. We were to assemble a team of 25 nationals to construct a 200 ft. dam. It would triple the size of the lake and thus provide more water for the people after the rainy season. The dam was to be built by hand using dirt, large rocks and concrete. Work would begin the next day. We had no experience or training. I thought it sheer madness!
Weeks later, the shock was severe. I stood up before I woke up. In a deluge; water washed over me in sheets. For weeks we had slept outside, the West African sky lulling us to sleep under the glow of the Milky Way amidst a billion stars. Now, the night was pitch black and everything was hidden.
Pushing myself toward awareness, I stumbled toward shelter with soaked pillow and cot in tow. Laying in the damp, I thought no one would be sleeping during the first rain. These last days, we had all been feeling the pressure and tension. Finally, this wet and wild night culminated a long waiting. The hope that had been but a whisper just might become a reality.
In the days ahead, several more rains would raise the level of the lake to seal our resolve. On our last visit, we celebrated and said our goodbyes. Driving away, I sat in the bed of the truck, haunted by a new realization. I had seen people sick, even dying, from drinking the water. Sometimes at night, a certain drum cadence echoed from nearby villages, announcing the death of a child. Most died from waterborne illness. Hallelujah, the dam was done, precious water, quenched thirsts, more to use—none of it safe.
An idea began, though unclear: could people living in poverty in the cracks and crevices of the world make water safe for their own communities? It’s a simple fact, we all need water. Water treatment appears to be a difficult process, requiring engineers and scientists to manage it. So, the dream was fragile with no foundation, weak as a whisper. Anything more, it might cease to exist.
It’s easy to underestimate the dedication that vision demands. This mantra has driven me, “Do something today that can make a difference 100 years from now.” Every day is important. And little by little, trying to bring a vision to fruition, God invites us to become more, develop our thinking, perceptions, relationships, securities and even our dreams.
“Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.” — Matthew 7 (The Message)
For over a decade, my life took twists and turns, as a piece of steel on the anvil of an ominous blacksmith, heating, beating, and quenching me over and over. A long time passed before I recognized a new man in the mirror. All the while my precious vision seemed veiled in fog, growing menacingly bigger and not gaining clarity. I wasn’t sure what to do or when it would be clearer.
By the mid-1990’s, my idea for those living in poverty to make water safe for their own communities felt dormant. Over time, listening to those with whom I was living and working, many wanted the same thing. This vision wasn’t just for me. The passion to impact lives with safe water would require a community and be bigger than all of us. Something miraculous and amazing had been happening all along.
Today, I work with WaterStep, an organization which empowers people from different backgrounds and geographic regions with a common drive to do whatever it takes to impact lives. Together, we can help almost anyone provide safe water to communities in the developing world and in disasters.
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.