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Engineering a future with clean water

Engineering a future with clean water

A miracle in Cuba

Missions and Outreach

Editor’s Note: Today, more than one billion people in developing countries are without clean water. This is the first in a two-part series that will explore challenges and solutions in both Cuba and Guatemala. Each was a mission of sacrifice and change. For part two click here.

In November 2013, Dan Christopherson was at a remote village in Cuba when he saw a tractor pulling a tanker filled with fresh water to fill a nearby well. Curious, Christopherson asked his Cuban host what was going on.

“The pastor told me, ‘We’re bringing in that fresh water so you don’t have to use the water we use,’” Christopherson said. “I asked him why that was.”

The pastor took Christopherson inside his home and filled a glass with water from the tap. It was dark, polluted and unfit to drink.

“This is what our water looks like,” the pastor said. “People wash dishes in this. They drink this.”

What he was told in that moment helped change him forever and probably helped save lives. Out of that single glass of water, a new outreach for the Southwest District Mission Program in Cuba was launched.

Agape Flights is a Christian-based cargo service based in Venice, Fla. A private donor paid all transportation costs to deliver purification units.

Thanks to countless and dogged hours of work and negotiation by Christopherson and his wife, Janet—along with more than a little prayer and the help of many others—26 water purification systems are scheduled to be installed in November at rural churches in Cuba.

“We chose to install them in the churches, but not just for the pastors or the people who attend there,” Christopherson said. “At the churches, the entire village will be welcome to come get clean water. And while they’re there, why not invite them inside to hear the message of Jesus Christ.”

To get the full story of Christ-in-action in this instance, one must go back to 2007 when the Christophersons made their first visit to Cuba on a mission project. While attending a service at a remote village, the pastor asked them to stand. Outsiders, particularly Americans, were a rare sight.

“The people are so appreciative when someone from the outside comes to see them. They surrounded us, placed their hands on us, and prayed for us,” Christopherson said. “Christ touched my heart that night. Christ changed my life.”

By 2010, he was volunteering as Cuba coordinator of the Southwest District, helping manage outreach from 43 churches. Soon, he left his paying job of 18 years as a commercial real estate agent to form a new company that gave him more time to devote to his mission.

Providing clean water is a major part of the United Methodist Global Health Outreach. Volunteers from Methodist churches throughout Florida and many other states are working to help some of the neediest nations provide this basic service.

“Bad water affects everyone,” Christopherson said. “It particularly hits the youngest, the oldest, and the weakest. If there are bacteria in the water, mom and dad get sick and can’t work. Kids can’t attend schools. It starts a cycle.”

The problem is particularly acute in nations throughout the Caribbean. In undeveloped parts of Cuba, water frequently is polluted by runoff from nickel and copper mines and sugar cane mills. The waste runs to the rivers that supply drinking water for homes.

The piping system is way past its prime, adding to the problem. Along with rust from the pipes, about 30 percent of all the water being transported is lost to leaks. The answer to that dilemma was 26 boxes, each containing a purification system weighing 48 pounds from Water One World Solutions, a Fort Myers-based company.

They weren’t easy to get.

Christopherson began work toward acquiring the systems shortly after he returned from Cuba in 2013. Because of regulations and other red tape, it took a year to find an approved supplier. Once that was accomplished, the next task was figuring out how to pay for the systems.

The first price was $4,000 for one solar powered unit. To accomplish Christopher’s goal of ultimately servicing 50 churches, he would need to raise $200,000.

“It was a great system, but it was priced out of our ability to pay,” he said.

It was just another obstacle to overcome. Kenn Visser, a board member at Water One, worked closely with Christopherson to help keep the project alive. That included a visit to Cuba to see what could be done at an affordable cost.

“When you’re talking about water purification systems, one size doesn’t fit all,” Visser said. “We need to know things like, what is the water source? How many people are you trying to take care of?”

Water purification systems were newly designed for the mission by engineers at a company called Water One. Each unit cost $1800. Member churches in Southwest District helped pay the overall project cost of nearly $50,000 through donations.

Armed with that information, Visser turned to the engineers at Water One. They designed a unit for about $1,800 that met the needs. Donations from member churches in the district and other fund-raising efforts helped pay the nearly $50,000 overall cost.

Now they had to get them to Cuba.

Christopherson partnered with Agape Flights, a Christian-based cargo plane service based in Venice, Florida. Agape concentrates on delivering humanitarian supplies and other necessities to missionaries throughout the Caribbean. Its Embraer 110 aircraft was large enough to handle the purification units, and a private donor wrote a check to defray the transportation costs.

“We had the supplier. We had the plane,” Christopherson said. “Now we just had to coordinate with Cuba.”

That took about six more months. But on Aug. 23, the Agape flight—loaded with the water units and 64 boxes of donated dehydrated food capable of making more than 10,000 meals—left for Jose Marti International Airport in Havana.

Even that trip had its share of drama. Christopherson was at the airport, waiting to greet the plane. Officials there said they didn’t know anything about the flight and sent him from terminal to terminal, even though the plane had already landed.

After it was unloaded to a warehouse, negotiating the release of the cargo took two more days of talks with Cuban officials and a paperwork review that lasted weeks. But by mid-November, Christopherson plans to be back in Cuba as the units are delivered and installed where they are needed most.

“What happened in this case is the closest thing I could imagine to what the churches must have been like in the time of Christ,” Visser said. “They brought fellowship and hope to people who were hopeless, and it was amazing to see that happen here.

“We could feel the Holy Spirit working through this and I’m just grateful I had a chance to be involved in whatever way I could. I know I’ve gotten more out of this project than I gave.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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