Blood:Water Mission, a synergy of justice and art
Driving across a dry riverbed in Malawi in 2001, Dan Haseltine was shocked to see people so thirsty that they were digging in the dusty channel, refusing to stop until they hit the water table. Then, as muddy water seeped into the hole, they drank it.
It was a long way from the concerts where Haseltine, the lead singer of the Christian band Jars of Clay, spent most of his time. But it was those very concerts that had moved him to journey to sub-Saharan Africa.
|Photo courtesy of the United Nations|
An international nonprofit that works with children had asked Haseltine to talk to his audiences about AIDS in Africa, and he wanted to learn more about the topic. He had already shared the statistics, but the numbers alone were not moving people to act. He wanted stories, the kind that could only be found on bumpy vehicle rides half a world away. Stories have a power that plain statistics don’t, he said.
“We’re all trying to relate in our universe and find where our feet touch ground and how we are connected to other people,” Haseltine said. “Stories are the way that we find those connections.”
As a recording artist, Haseltine had long used stories to reach his audience. But now he wanted to take storytelling to a broader and deeper level, translating his art and his faith into action.
Armed with stories from that and later trips, Haseltine and Jars of Clay in 2003 launched Blood:Water Mission, a nonprofit that fights AIDS and helps provide clean water in Africa.
Now in its 10th year, the organization draws on the power of artists -- musicians, writers, actors and visual artists -- to move people to creative social change. Blood:Water Mission is built upon a synergy of art and justice, said Jena Nardella, the president and co-founder.
“The role of the artists is to look at the world and describe it,” Nardella said. “When the issues of HIV/AIDS and lack of water are 6,000 miles away, you need someone who can describe it well. In Jars of Clay, we had four artists whose whole job is to look at the world and describe and cause a stirring among their listeners, inviting people to come along.”
Over the years, tens of thousands have accepted the invitation. At its core, Blood:Water is both a grass-roots organization of small, local fundraising efforts and a growing network of “artist advocates” -- Hollywood actors, Nashville country music stars, authors and Christian musicians, who further share the story of what Blood:Water is doing in partnership with people in Africa.
Thanksgiving dinner bomb
Blood:Water wasn’t Jars of Clay’s first stab at social justice. They had spoken before on behalf of Amnesty International and Prayer for the Persecuted Church. But shortly after Haseltine was approached about speaking about AIDS in Africa, he had a Thanksgiving dinner guest who prompted him to do more.
The man, a refugee from the Rwandan genocide, had not seen his family in a year and a half. They were still in Kenya, trying to get to the United States.
Over dinner, Haseltine commented on how hard it must be to have endured the tragedy in Rwanda and now be away from his family.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘If you were to ask me about computers, I would know nothing. If I were to ask you about the provision of God, you would know nothing,’” Haseltine said. “He dropped that bomb right in the middle of our Thanksgiving, further ingraining in me the need to understand, ‘OK, what is my role in all of this in the world? How do I understand that kind of provision of God?’ So I took the trip to Africa.”
Inspired by that journey, Haseltine came home determined to start an organization to address two of the continent’s most pressing needs: HIV prevention and treatment, and clean water.
At the time, it was a bold step. A 2002 Barna Research poll showed that only 3 percent of evangelical Christians said they “definitely” would help children orphaned by AIDS. The church’s discomfort with any issue related to sexuality was paralyzing, Haseltine said.
“It’s a lot harder to argue whether or not a person should have access to clean water,” he said. “That was a story to tell -- one we could use to bring into the public consciousness what was happening in Africa.”
Not an easy sell
It wasn’t an easy sell at first. Even his bandmates were skeptical. At the time, Jars of Clay was riding high after five years making records in Nashville, including three successive Grammy winners. Songs like “Flood” and “Unforgetful You” were featured on movie soundtracks, expanding the band’s appeal into mainstream music.
Amid the busyness, the band didn’t quite understand Haseltine’s dream or how it would work.
“It was a lot of hesitancy, a lot of, ‘I don’t know. This feels like too much,’” he said.
But a year later, the band traveled to Africa and caught the vision, too. They began visiting college campuses on their tours to talk with students. They weren’t asking for money but hoped to inspire students to write class reports and campus newspaper articles and even talk with their families about AIDS and clean water in Africa.
At Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., then-student Jena Nardella challenged them to up their game. Nardella, who organized the group’s visit, liked how the band was trying to move others to get involved. But she had bigger plans.
|Photo courtesy of the United Nations|
“They had a platform far bigger than I had at Whitworth, where I was having a hard time getting students involved,” Nardella said. “I thought, ‘My goodness, if I have a rock band as my sidekick -- or more likely, me as their sidekick -- what we could do.’”
Soon she gave the band a 25-page proposal to transform Blood:Water from raising public awareness to doing something. The band bought in, and after graduation she was brought on board as the nonprofit’s president and co-founder.
Before Nardella began putting her blueprint into action, even before the first dollar was raised, she also traveled to Africa. Like Haseltine, she went to listen and learn from the people who lived there. She wanted to understand what had worked before -- and what had not.
At the time, broken wells were all over Africa, a remnant of failed relief efforts of the 1980s. Nardella and her team learned that earlier organizations had come to Africa trying to be heroes, digging wells and then leaving.
“There was never any ownership in the community,” she said. “It never felt like it was their project.”
As a result, Nardella and Jars of Clay structured Blood:Water to work in partnership with people in Africa. They would work to raise the money so that Africans could bring water and HIV prevention into their own communities.
After funding an AIDS hospice, Haseltine in 2005 set an ambitious goal to raise enough money for 1,000 wells. But that first fundraising campaign showed how much they still had to learn.
Not every community, they discovered, needed a well. Some already had a reliable source of water but needed a purification plant. The goals quickly shifted to provide clean water to 1,000 communities in whatever way necessary.
But raising the $7 million needed to serve 1,000 communities was a daunting challenge for Blood:Water and its fledgling president.
“I thought, ‘I couldn’t provide water for myself, much less people in Africa,’” Nardella said.
But Haseltine assured her that it could be done.
“1,000 is a number that only God is comfortable with,” she said he told her. “If we do it, we’ll know that it was of God.”
By 2010, Blood:Water had achieved their goal, helping to provide clean water to more than 700,000 people in 1,000 communities. By 2013, those numbers had climbed to more than 800,000 people in 1,300 communities.
Most donations had come in increments of $50 or less, through simple campaigns such as lemonade stands, charity walks and concerts.
But behind the numbers were stories of lives changed.
One of Nardella’s favorites is about a community in Zambia that for years had experienced annual outbreaks of cholera, the life-threatening intestinal disorder caused by contaminated drinking water. The community’s name was Chapulu Kusu -- “cursed.”
After installing a filtration system and conducting a sanitation education program, both funded by Blood:Water, residents no longer experienced the cholera outbreaks. They changed the community’s name to Mapolo -- “blessed.”
“That is a vision that we have for every community,” Nardella said. “Taking something cursed and it becoming a blessing of healing and hope.”
A role for Westerners
In Mapolo, as with all Blood:Water projects, local residents did the project themselves. But Westerners do have a role: caring about -- and funding -- the African partners. Numerous artists and people in the entertainment industry share Blood:Water’s stories in concerts, in their writing or on the radio.
Blood:Water doesn’t recruit; artists are drawn by the work and the reputation of Jars of Clay. They meet the band, hear the stories and ask to be involved.
“Wally,” a Nashville-based Christian radio deejay, is one of Blood:Water’s advocates, helping to promote the organization and its work on his nationally syndicated program “The Wally Show.”
Wally said that Jars of Clay has great musicians and great songs, but their work with Blood:Water puts them in a whole different category.
“It’s not about the music as much anymore,” he said. “They do the music to be able to do the good.”
Media personalities and artists such as Jars of Clay can have a powerful influence on their audiences and must be careful not to abuse that trust, Wally said.
“If I love this person or what this band stands for and their music, that gives them credibility to me,” he said. “When they say, ‘Here’s what we do,’ that ties you to their passion and carries so much weight.”
That’s one reason why Wally visits Africa annually to see Blood:Water and its work up close and convey that to his listeners.
“They trust me, and it’s up to me to not break that trust,” he said. “That’s why I take who we partner with so seriously.”
Jars of Clay welcomes the help and has never held the nonprofit so tightly that it was theirs alone.
“They are so excited about anybody who could come on board and advocate for Blood:Water,” Nardella said.
At the same time, Jars of Clay is careful not to let the nonprofit overshadow the reason that people purchase music or attend concerts. The band, which releases its newest collection, “Inland,” this week, has written just two songs about Africa. And those who go to a Jars of Clay show won’t be bombarded with pictures of sick children.
“I’ve seen artists who have overstated their messaging to where it overshadowed their music and art and made them irrelevant,” Haseltine said. “It’s like they were making their fans pay more. They came to the show, bought the music, and now I’m going to make them feel guilty for not helping out or seeing this culture that’s been in the shadows?”
A delicate balance
Early on, Jars of Clay decided that if they were going to talk about Africa, it would have to happen in a certain way, delicately balancing the needs of their listeners, the band, Blood:Water and their partners in Africa.
Blood:Water takes seriously how stories are told. Photos on their website and in the headquarters in Nashville are positive and hopeful.
“Storytelling carries a huge weight,” Nardella said. “We’ve seen stories told poorly, stories told in a way that strips the dignity of communities.”
Sensationalized and distressing photos -- crying children with distended bellies, for example -- may move people to give more money, she said. But Blood:Water tries to honor people’s stories and tell them in a way they would want their own stories told.
“You want people to understand that situations are difficult and horrible,” Nardella said. “But if my child were sick, I wouldn’t want the worst image of my child to be shared with people that have never met him or her.”
Blood:Water has moved well beyond the startup that first operated out of a church basement, into an international organization with high visibility. In the coming year, it plans to bring together partner organizations throughout sub-Saharan Africa to network, collaborate and problem solve on a bigger scale. Nardella expects that the summit will become annual.
“When you bring African partners together, there is so much synergy,” she said. “We want to help continue to facilitate those ideas and lessons so that we can continue to work together. We have a long way to go.”
Or as Haseltine puts it, “How much further can we take this?”
Though neither music nor nonprofits typically have long life spans, Blood:Water is coming up on its 10th anniversary; Jars of Clay has been together since the early 1990s.
It’s relationships that have kept both going. The band feeds the nonprofit, and the nonprofit feeds the band.
Like a million other bands, Jars of Clay could have broken up a dozen times over a “silly guitar part in a song,” Haseltine said.
“But we always had people who cared enough to say, ‘If you guys are going to end it, end it on your terms, together in a room, saying we care about each other and the friendships have mattered.’ We always put that above the organization or the music in terms of how we operated.”
They also had Blood:Water, where relationships run deep, among the founders, advocates and donors and their partners in Africa. As deep, you might say, as a well.
Courtesy Faith and Leadership www.faithandleadership.com. The views in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.