Eleven years ago Jena Lee Nardella was a graduate from Whitworth College with the dream of eradicating HIV/AIDS and delivering clean water throughout Africa to those who desperately needed it and were dying without it. These dreams, along with the passion and support from Jars of Clay, led to the formation of Blood:Water Mission.
I have been familiar with Blood:Water from afar for a few years. I recently read One Thousand Wells to learn more about the history of this organization. One Thousand Wells is a well-written account of Blood:Water Mission’s founding and history which also gives us insight to all that Jena learned personally, professionally, and spiritually along the way. Lessons from the history of Blood:Water apply to the faith and work movement.
Why would Jena choose to leave the comfort of the United States to pursue the goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS and providing clean water on the other side of the world? The answer to this question comes from Jena’s awareness of others from an early age. This awareness appeared to be a burden rather than a blessing, but would one day define her calling. Her awareness of others first drew her to the liturgies practiced by her Jewish classmate, cultivating a moral consciousness that would become part of her vocation. This process also led her to Jars of Clay‘s music, which served as a “hymnbook of her adolescence.”
Next, her awareness led her to climb a 13,000 foot mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park when she was only in junior high. This experience catalyzed physical and relational skills that she would employ one day in the deserts of Africa as well as in the “rocky land of running a non-profit organization.”
Finally, her awareness brought her to a place of powerful, life changing community where her skills in compassion were brought to those overlooked by society:
Somewhere along the way, I discovered that while many of the residents want a life like mine, the shelter was the place I yearned to belong the most.
A high point of the book, in my opinion, is Nardella’s account of the financial mismanagement by their first organization partner. Yes, you read that sentence right. Why would this be a high point? This is an important point of the story because of how Blood:Water handled the conflict as well as how it helped them to make a course correction.
Blood:Water immediately terminated the partnership, informed their donors, adjusted internal accountability structures, and identified ways to improve their organizational integrity. In addition, because of their core emphasis on relationships and human dignity, the board sent Jena and a colleague to meet with the partner face to face to formally end the partnership.
They wanted us to give him the dignity of closure, to offer him an opportunity to share his side of the story, and to show that relationships mattered to us – even relationships that hurt us.
Following this trip, she told a friend “I’m not sure I believe in [this] as much as I used to.” She spent some time with a wise friend who offered her some advice based on his experience and God-given wisdom:
But since this world is a tough place to live, we have to live with what is proximate.
People have wanted to make the world a better place for thousands of years. It often seems like the world wins. That makes it hard to keep going. You know too much now. You know that Africa, like Washington, is more complex and more disappointing than you had hoped it to be. Like a lot of people, you want to throw your hands in the air and give up so you can protect your heart from further wounds.
The other option would be to choose to enter the world still, knowing what you know. That means believing that it is better to do something than to do nothing. That justice somewhere is better than justice nowhere. You can choose proximate mercy for a certain group of people, even though you know that as hard as you try, you will not be able to achieve all you set out to achieve in the world.
Choosing to live proximately does not mean you’ve lowered your standards. It means you’ve decided to be honest about the world. And still live by hope.
Jena unpacks and develops a concept of “slowly by slowly” throughout the book. It can be easy in any movement to allow passion and excitement to drive the work and increase the pace of activity. Jena and her team’s passion and enthusiasm allowed them to do a lot of great work throughout the African content, resulting in lives spared and evidences of human flourishing, but was it done in a sustainable manner? Was their partnership model the best? Did it reflect a lifestyle of living proximately? We should ask these same questions of the faith and work movement as we consider its past and look forward to its future.
We have come to see that the true transformation lies in this slowly by slowly process, a grassroots approach that truly honors the I-Thou relationship, that allows the communities to believe in their own capabilities and take ownership of their own development. It is a daily fight of endurance, courage, and resilience that we see in our friends who wage the long defeat.
Blood:Water chose to empower nationals to make many decisions on local processes and procedures. This was certainly not the easy road, but I believe that it is the best in the long term and also reflects the important concept of subsidiarity. In addition, Jena came to realize that once you adopt a proximate walk, success is defined differently.
I have learned that truer triumph comes from the small than from the grandiose. I have seen as much empowerment happen in the grassroots organizing of a village water committee as from the expert interventions of outsiders. I have witnessed the lasting change that happens when comprehensive quality health care is provided for a handful of HIV-positive clients compared to the haphazard fixes that are scattered to thousands of people….The faithful actions of loving one person at a time, working for justice one place at a time, providing water one village at a time – that is how we love the whole world.
Jena Lee Nardella is integrating her faith into her work at Blood:Water Mission. Her goal is to love the world through her work. The same is true for each of us as we live on mission each day ushering foretastes of the future Kingdom into this present world. Jena realized that while her organization was doing great work, some change was necessary in order to ensure its long-term sustainability.
May we as leaders in the faith & work movement, as we desire to ensure this movement’s long term legacy and impact, be willing to ask the hard questions, and also make the important and not necessarily popular changes. (For some thoughts and reflections on what these questions and changes might be, check out this post by David Gill.)
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