Jim Gehrels is going blind, but his vision is changing parts of God’s world. I first met Jim while visiting Thunder Bay two years before I moved there from Edmonton to pastor Hope Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Jim then worked as a water expert for Environment Ontario.
In the late 1980s, he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). This untreatable degenerative illness deteriorates from night blindness and tunnel vision to total loss of sight.
“I’d planned to work, save money, raise my kids – hoping after retirement to give back to God’s world,” Jim says. “With RP, my world collapsed.”
As the shock of this diagnosis eased, Jim faced his mortality head-on. He read in a letter from a Liberian pastor: “There is no point preaching about the love of God to people who are dying because they don’t have safe drinking water.” This intrigued Gehrels, who decided not to wait till retirement. He sublimated his growing blindness into a bold spiritual and physical vision.
Learning these worrisome facts spurred him to action: fewer than 75 percent of people in Haiti and Sub-Saharan Africa have access to good water. In rural areas millions drink contaminated water; many children die before age five because of this. The United Nations’ declaration that access to safe drinking water is a basic human right inspired him to dream and work.
Jim ordered a small drill rig and shipped it to Liberia. In 1995, he travelled there with three friends. They planned to train and equip locals, drill two wells and then go home, leaving them to continue the work.
Arriving in Liberia brought a huge shock. A devastating civil war, provoked by the blood diamond trade, was ruining the nation. In the steamy capital Monrovia children carrying AK-47s or RPGs were common, scary sights. West African Peacekeepers surrounded the city, enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew.
In the evenings, Jim and colleagues taught 12 Liberian men how groundwater flows and theories of well construction. During the day, they learned to operate the drill rig in the northern suburb of Jacob Town. When the first well was finished, the dedication celebration was attended by Monrovia’s mayor and community leaders. In a blessed confluence of word-and-deed ministry, a church and school were founded next to the well.
The team drilled another well in a camp for internally displaced refugees. That former vocational training centre was home to 5,000 people and one well. Days later the team struck water. Camp residents offered thanks for life-giving water, declaring they now had hope for the future.
Having heard of the project, Liberia’s president invited the team to the Executive Mansion and asked Gehrels to return to drill more wells. Leaving this meeting, Jim wept as he saw children drinking from street gutters. He remembered his two young healthy children surrounded by safe drinking water everywhere. In Canada we flush toilets with potable water.
Before Jim went home he visited rural Grand Bassa. Children surrounded him next to a stagnant swamp, the sole source of drinking water. A profound question overcame Gehrels: “If I go home and forget these children, who of them will not be here next Christmas?”
Jim was also struck by the gender disparity of this culture during school visits. In every classroom many girls were absent till mid-morning. In their culture, girls help their mothers with household duties. They get early up, haul water long distances and arrive late for school. After school, boys do homework; girls once again haul water. That daily burden of inequality decreases after a team drills a public well in the village square or near the school.
Near the end of the trip, the workers asked who would keep working and for how much. Jim vented, “You got a free a drill rig, learned to work it and now you want pay!?” When he calmed down, the men explained, “When we don’t work, our families don’t eat.”
Jim says, “For the first time in my life, I finally understood that having food in a fridge, a car in the driveway and money in the bank is not normal. I saw that volunteering is a privilege and blessing. When we volunteer, our families still eat.”
Before leaving Liberia, Jim hired six of the men to keep drilling. He realized that for families living on $1 per day, a $5,000 well was as affordable as a $5 million dollar well; both were impossible dreams. They needed a living wage.
Streams of mercy
Returning to Thunder Bay, Jim began sending money to keep the team drilling. Soon members of Bethlehem CRC, his home church, added to it. Later family and friends began helping. Eventually environmental companies offered corporate sponsorships. Jim’s wife Lynda, a retired nurse, now accompanies him on all his trips, which last from a few weeks to several months. With Jim’s sight down to five percent, she serves as his sighted guide.
In 1997, Lifewater Canada incorporated as a Christian non-profit registered charity. Since drilling the first two wells, Lifewater teams and volunteers have drilled over 1,600 more. Safe drinking water now flows to 800,000 children and their families in Liberia, Kenya, Haiti and Nigeria. The work in Nigeria stopped because of funding shortage and needs $100,000 to resume.
Alongside its million-dollar budget, Lifewater is powered by volunteers working from home. Overhead remains under seven percent, ensuring that every donated dollar gives a child safe drinking water for a year. Last September, Charity Intelligence named Lifewater as one of Canada’s top ten charities based on its efficiency, transparency and social impact.