One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It by Jena Lee Nardella (Howard) $24.00 Our sale price $19.00
This is the audacious story by a young woman who helped start the organization Blood: Water Mission.
There have been a good batch of books in the last year or so testifying to God's concern for the poor, explaining about the Biblical basis for justice advocacy and how we can most effectively address the great issues of global poverty, systemic violence, economic development. That there is a brand new, (once again) updated and newly edited edition of the truly seminal book on Biblically-based social concern, first published in the 1970s, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) is further indication that people still care about this stuff. If you haven't read Rich Christians, I can't recommend it enough; it is one of the most significant books I've ever read by an author I trust immensely and who has become an esteemed friend and mentor. I am glad for this new revision.
Alongside other recent books like Stephan Bauman's fabulously energetic and visionary call to enter this fray with creativity and hope, Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World (Waterbrook; $22.99) or the free-market-based solutions proposed in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Zondervan; $21.99) and last year's exceptionally important and much-discussed Locust Effect: Why Ending Poverty Requires the End of Violence by IJM founder Gary Haugen & Victor Boutros (Oxford University Press; $18.95) or the fabulous new 12-session Bible study curriculum from the IJM Institute, God of Justice by Abraham George & Nikki A. Toyama-Szeto (InterVarsity Press; $16.00) and their must-have, multi-issue resource edited by Mae Cannon, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (InterVarsity Press; $22.00) you can readily take up a crash course on faith-based social concerns, or create a shelf in your library or resource room. We have long hoped that we could help those wanting to learn how to think Biblically and live more faithfully as they embrace these aspects of discipleship. Certainly these books will remind you, and give you great awareness and zeal to support those who are called to work full time on these kinds of global concerns. I don't know about you, but I need these kinds of voices in my life, and am inspired to deeper prayer and care and lifestyle adjustments by learning always trying to learn a bit more about world missions and global concerns.
In my many years of teaching about these topics in churches, leading workshops and seminars on social concerns and global peace and justice issues, and in all the reading I've done about individuals and organizations doing good relief and development and justice work, Jana Lee Nardella's story is truly one of the most engaging. I enjoyed it as much as any book I've read in quite a while. Her voice, her writing, her story, her organization - Blood: Water Mission, co-founded by the rock band Jars of Clay, are all so very interesting, and bring to the fore aspects of this work that are captivating to read about, deeply moving at times, informative and good and helpful. I really hope you consider buying it, that your church library might offer it, that book clubs might take it up.
I'll explain more about it, below, but first, two helpful points about the strengths of this new author and her book.
First, One Thousand Wells has built into its own narrative approach a major theme, which is applicable to nearly anyone, or at least anyone who may have hopes and dreams, goals or projects: how to discern one's calling and learn to take actionable steps, dreaming big but moving forward in realistic ways that have integrity, step by step by step. Sure, Jena Lee's story is particularly audacious and her adventures dramatic enough to warrant a book about them, but the lessons between the lines about her own discernment about her life, her relationships, her goals and efforts and spiritual development through it all, are sure to be an encouragement to anyone wanting to move forward in their own life goals. As I read I kept thinking of people - mostly college age students, I suppose, or the post-college folks who are reading my Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books; $12.95) just for instance - who would be encouraged in their own day-to-day struggles to craft a well-lived and purposeful life. That a 60 year old bookseller in a less than thriving, small-town retail shop would learn something about endurance and find a measure of renewed hope from this story about the formation of a development organization in Africa is telling, and a good indication of why so many will like the book.
"My awareness of others would one day define my calling," she writes in a chapter called 'She Breaths the Air and Flies Away.' The chapter title is a line from one of the lovely early songs of Jars of Clay, a CD which meant very much to her as a young teen. That they show up as the key partners in this story is a blessed bit of providence, and a joy to read about, especially for those of us who have been fans and fanatics about performing artists. Imagine if out of nowhere you ended up being invited to work with the musicians of your favorite band, or, say, the stars of your favorite TV show.
The point, though, is that Jena tells this story, in part, at least, through the lens of calling. Few books that offer memoirist ruminations on growing up, or that tell heroic stories of people who do good stuff, frame their stories with this important rhetoric of vocation and call. She does and that makes it a stronger, and more useful book.
A second feature of One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It that will be compelling to many, and certainly many of our dearest customers, is suggested by the questions about sustaining a love for the world in the important sub-title, a theme of the book about which Nardella ruminates more than once. She cites her current pastor, author/activist/ Episcopal priest Becca Stevens, naming this notion, but it is also straight from her mentor Steve Garber, who gets at the question of sustaining care over a lifetime in his first book about young adult faith development (Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior) and explicitly teaches us about it in his more recent Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.(Both nicely published by IVP; $17.00/$16.00 respectively.) That is, can we know the world in all its brokenness and still love it? Can we avoid utopianism and idealism, on the one hand, and paralyzing cynicism on the other? As we enter in to the pain of others can we still be people who truly love and show God's grace? There are many who set out to "save" the world (or "solve" a problem for a friend or loved one, for that matter) but it is a harder, deeper, and more lasting goal to learn to love it. (Ahh, she even cites Thomas Merton on this, bringing his eloquent touch.) Nardella's subtitle indicates that she and her team (the Jars guys have also been influenced by Garber) have created an organization that is particularly thoughtful, rare, honest. She shows how she is getting at things (bit by bit, as their learning deepened, as Garber and the important Board and books she surrounded herself with shaped her) with what I found to be a uniquely profound perspective. The opening epigram in the front is a good quote by Wendell Berry about our duty to share hope. I am sure other good organizations have similar backstories and have struggled hard to be guided by a particular ethos or set of guiding principles, but Blood:Water Mission seems particularly good on this.
And, happily, as Donald Miller says in his helpful forward, it is a great story.
It is commonly said these days, but it's worth hearing Miller at the outset:
We are each telling a story with our lives. And sometimes I think God is asking us if the stories we're telling are good ones. Not all of us will devote ourselves to Africa, nor should we. But we all must find a suspense question that will drive us. We must start with the knowledge that life itself will end, and that by living our stories we are setting the compasses of the people around us through example. And Jena's is an example that will inspire you to go out and live a great story.
Okay, so One Thousand Wells is well written, inspiring, and offers helpful insight about discerning one's vocation and taking steps to trust God as we move forward, even facing set-backs and confusion. It invites us to this endless calling to integrate head and heard and hands, to have our desires shaped so that we might sustain care about the world in ways that are neither idealistic or sentimental or trendy, but authentic and lasting, incarnating real love for real people in the real world.
One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It starts with Jena Lee telling about her girlhood, and I found myself utterly intrigued in this, even wiping back tears sometimes. (I'm a father of three young adults, including two girls, and I re-lived episodes of our own lives as I listened in to Jena talking about her joys and sorrows, her loneliness and emerging identity in girlhood, middle school and beyond.) She tells about childhood friends she had, music she listened to, involvements at church, her experiences in the insular evangelical subculture. And a particularly moving section about her going off to camp. There is a dramatic episode (doing a wilderness assent with a supportive crew) that comes back to her a time or two later in life, and one of these early chapters tells of a very significant memory encountering a homeless man, indicating her sensitive soul, even as a child, as she truly cared for those who were wounded or excluded.
I don't want to overstate this, but I think this volume would be a helpful read for anyone in children's or youth ministry as these early chapters give us glimpses into how faith development works. Of course any memoir of childhood faith could be illuminating, but Jena's self-awareness, and her emergence from a timid and sensitive child to a leader (getting youth at her church to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, for instance) is truly fascinating. How does this happen? Even the portion of the book about her college years illustrates a (perhaps more common-place than we realize?) blend of feet of clay and remarkable spiritual maturity, the fears and eccentricities of a youth/young adult and the bold leadership she mustered. Those in youth or campus ministry may sometimes be tempted to view people as either socially awkward losers or born leaders; Jena's story may show a more realistic scenario. Of course, she certainly had a lot going for her - her family plays a significant and tender role through-out the book (including a wonderful scene where her dad takes her out to dinner fearing she is becoming to absorbed in her Blood:Water work, and firmly counsels her to start dating, and playfully gives her a year to do so.)
Exactly like Steve Garber's research on marks of sustainable, robust faith (explained in his Fabric of Faithfulness) shows, Jena developed in her college-age years a deep commitment to seeking religious truth, she nurtured and was nurtured by a community of serious friends, and she had mentors. (Three cheers for Dr. Julia Stronks, who shook lose some funds from the political science department at Whitworth College and sent Jena to an AIDS conference which was life-changing! Would that every college student had a professor/adviser like Stronks, who helped Jena transition from a science nursing major to her sweeter spot of political science, and served as a steadfast ally and coach.)
Blood:Water Mission, as you may know, faced some early struggles because it intended to address two major public health crisis's in Africa, AIDS/HIV and the desperate need for clean water. You may also recall how sadly controversial it was just a decade or so ago for many in the evangelical world to reach out to persons who were HIV-positive. Nardella reflects on this a bit, in fact, in a small section that is very important. For her, hearing a (heterosexual, by the way) HIV-positive man speak - putting a face on this person - was, again, life-changing.
Jena explores her encounter with this gentleman named Bill and the moral complexities of listening well and humanely.
Early on, when I would hear a story about HIV, I felt like a voyeur peering into secrets I should not know. Then I realized how healing listening can be. These are stories of vulnerability and horror. Many times they are also stories of deep gratitude, told by Lazaruses who were counted for dead but have been given a second or fifth or twelfth chance at life. Cradling someone's testimony of HIV is a sacred responsibility. I try not to break it as I receive it and carry it with me. And each story I hear reminds me of Bill.
And so, she takes up the vocation of listening well. She comes to care and tells us about it without sounding super-spiritual or sensational. (Some breathy writers these days seem as if they want to carry a prophet's mantel and they call us with such passion and colorful wordsmithing that their summons feels forced, evoking guilt or awe, perhaps, but not an invitation to reasonably participate ourselves.) This author is telling her story, not shaming us, or even preaching to us. She is allowing us to listen in as she discerns more about her own next steps.
Isn't this the way it often works as we learn to pay attention to our lives, listening to our hearts, discovering a bit about our deepest passions and the world's great needs. (Yes, yes, think of that famous Fred Buechner quote right about now; Nardella reflects on it with greater insight that most who cite it.) And, again, she is exploring this in light of conversations she recounts where Garber asks her "What do you truly care about?"
She tells us about this quintessential Garber conversation thread,
"We have entered the Culture of Whatever," Garber, continued. "Ironically, the more we know, the less we care. This info-glut age can make us dangerously numb." I scribbled the words down in my journal. "That's why we need to know what people care about and start caring about those things, too. The greatest challenge is to attach yourself to the cares of the world and still keep going. To know the world and still love it."
When she talked about a phone conversation shortly after the campus lecture, describing a long, silent pause, I knew she was telling the truth. Steve is attentive and caring, but not always verbose, and is comfortable with silence at times.
And then the big moment, a moment that stands in my mind as a key episode in Garber's already influential life. It is a surprise in the book, and I hate to spoil it for you, although I cheered when I came to that paragraph, even though I've heard the story more than once.
In God's providence Garber had been just talking with the guys in Jars of Clay about their growing desire to leverage their fame (although they didn't have much fortune) for the sake of others and be responsible in their cultural moment when they had some pop influence. They were drawn to Africa, and felt called to speak up about the AIDS crisis there. They didn't want to be a typical Christian rock band, but were serious artists attempting to offer their aesthetically rich songs into the mainstream world (even though their fan base remained mostly those engaged in the contemporary Christian music science, where they mostly played, from church camps to Christian colleges to huge outdoor festivals. They were clearly in another league than many CCM pop stars, but there they were, hoping not only to share their music with a wider world, but to press their evangelical fans to better perspectives and postures regarding social concern and a broader worldview.
Jena answers Garber's question about what she cares most about with her reply about the African AIDS crisis and her desire to give voice to the marginalized and overlooked.
Seemingly out of nowhere he asks if she has ever heard of the group Jars of Clay. And it is then her turn to go silent on the phone. What? Why would he ask that random question about her biggest life-line, the one band that she most loved, her musical heroes whose nuanced and artful songs seemed to really get her? Whaaat?
There are chapters and chapters here about how it then developed, but from that moment on, the rest was, as they say, history.
Or, as John Steinbeck put it in East of Eden, in a quote she uses,
A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out.
The world opened out. And this is just the first portion of the book.
There are a few really good things that stand out in the excellent next parts of the story of One Thousand Wells. Jena offers them a proposal, and then another (the band calls it her "manifesto") and they take her on, even before she's finished college. She learns a lot about starting a non-profit. In fact, again I note, she has to navigate her involvement in this extraordinary calling while she is still a college student. She struggles with some hard life choices -- where to live, her personal finances, figuring out how to work as a very young woman in this often high-powered profession. (A story about wearing a flowing floral skirt and flip flops to a White House function to meet the President was hilarious and, for the record, I'm not buying the West Coast/Rocky Mountain cultural excuse! Ha!) And there's some funny/awkward stuff like being the only girl on a tour bus with a traveling rock band. I laughed right out loud in a part about late night shenanigans after the Jars shows, including something apparently called Karaoke Sharking. (Elton John! Neil Diamond!)
She has some relational ups and downs, and there's some painful drama with the band and the touring crew as she jams press conferences about AIDS and clean water and Africa into their sound checks and music industry VIP meet-and-greet sessions, and seems frustrated with the realities of their primary calling as a rock band, not full-time social entrepreneurs. There is an explosive encounter with the tour bus driver, who had it with "this Blood:Water crap!") There is a very poignant scene in which band spokesperson Dan Hasseltine fails to make a much-needed fund-raising ask during a concert - he is a sensitive soul himself and couldn't bring himself to seem exploitative or manipulative) leaving her holding empty fund-raising buckets and tragic images of her desperate African friends. (The band certainly were committed to telling the stories of Africa, but had not actually seen the crisis up close, yet.) Learning forbearance and patience and prayer and more, her adventure expands as they get into the rhythm of figuring out how to make Blood:Water's dream of digging one thousand wells a reality.
Through it all Lee Nardella tells about a soul mate who she hopes to be involved with romantically - she's never had a serious boyfriend - and how the personal and the political, and the artistic and the social weave together. It doesn't work out, but they become good friends, and his insight about justice issues and public health and third world solidarity offers much. And, yes, there eventually is a wonderfully successful love story that unfolds, too, as the young Ms Lee becomes Mrs. Nardella. Unless you're not romantic at all, I'm sure you'll love this delightful telling of her discovery of a life mate, and then - with Garber using a famous Hauerwas quote, they get married, and wonder "what love requires." It is not sappy at all, and I could have used even a bit more about all that. How do young people who have seen war and starvation and sexual violence and horror of all sorts become trusting and intimate and whole? And what does love require for a globe-traveling, talented, young couple like them?
Very, very significantly, at the core of the book's seriousness, Jena Lee (not yet married) and Jars of Clay developed what might be called a philosophy of ministry, an ethos or vision for their audacious global plans. Their tone, principles and practices were to be in part shaped by an insightful board convened with Garber's help, and in part shaped by the significant work of Gustavo Gutierrez (a South American liberation theologian who wrote about "the preferential option for the poor") and medical doctor Paul Farmer whose work in Haiti was gaining fame - perhaps you know the wonderful, award-winning book about him written by Tracer Kidder called Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.) Dwight Gibson, one of the principles in the much-celebrated For the Life of the World DVD, recently told me about one lively board session in those early years where he was serving with Jars and Jena and the conversations were so rich and moving that he missed an important international plane flight to continue talking late into the night! Every upstart ministry should have such thoughtful, wise, "conversations of consequence" going on around them, asking important questions, pushing beyond easy answers or pragmatic moves or dramatic gestures to discern best practices informed by serious considerations of the deepest matters.
The guys in Jars had "hired" Jena and she moved into a basement room at the Haseltine's small Nashville home. She was tasked with starting their effort to combine the two huge public health concerns - clean blood, clean water - and sent her on a learning trip to Africa (she put the travel expenses on her credit card, which, I suspect, may have been her parents credit card at that point; she was maybe 21 years old!)
After much research and networking she had found a few indigenous agencies doing health, sanitation and hygiene education in rural Kenyan and another in Rwanda. Each had a vision for sustainable health education, including frank addressing of the issues of AIDS and water. Well digging was becoming important as a strategy for many development groups, but they realized wells and water collection devices were successful only after empowering local folks to use and maintain them properly. (Clean water isn't effective, after all, if it is then contaminated by animal or human feces and wells dug by outsiders are often left in ill-repair as local folks are unaware of the proper maintenance.)
Such are the huge obstacles of development goals in rural Africa, and too, too often well intended social service agencies (especially those inspired by conservative religious groups, it seems) left villages with costly unintended consequences after a flash-in-the-pan service trip or mission project. Western paternalism and quick-fix techniques is legendary, and Nardella's best friend, Joel, an early champion of the Mission, helped her develop a keen sense of only proceeding with projects that are locally-owned, managed by national groups, which develop organically out of trusting relationships. Jars of Clay and their Blood:Water Mission was going to partner with community health educators (mostly made up of African women) and fund projects run by African leaders they would trust. (I took a long time to get where they are now, but you can learn about some of these healthy partnerships at their website, here.)
We went over our plans for the month, pulling up notes that outlined questions we wanted to answer. We were on a mission to learn how to apply our values to actual projects in Africa. We believed the best way to learn would be to see what other organizations were already doing and ask them questions. What was working? Where are the gaps? What would you change if you were to start over today? We still had to raise the money for the wells, but we wanted to lay the groundwork for the 1000 Wells Project in the expectation that it would take off at some point. Unlike many large organizations that could work only with well-established African partners, Blood:Water could reach the smaller, fledgling organizations and help them soar.
Joel makes Jena promise that she will not make promises to her new friends in Africa. Too many false promises have been made by well-intended Western mission groups and development agencies. From the UN to US tele-evangelists to secular celebrities, promises for funds or assistance have been routinely made and routinely broken, and half-baked plans have left hundreds if not thousands of uncompleted or backfired projects throughout the developing world. We learn about a few of these in Nardella's book, although others have explored these things in more scholarly detail. In A Thousand Wells we get on-the-ground narrative, we hear about bad plans, good plans gone haywire, and Jena's hope to do right by the people she wants to work alongside. We hear of Jena's honest, tearful speech given to a small group of Kenyan village women saying she would make no promises other than to be their friend, to tell their stories back in North America.
The stories are told, funds are raised and you will cheer, you will praise God, you will keep turning the pages for the stuff you'll read about here.
What did Donald Miller say about the need for suspense in a really good story, about struggle and pain and conflict?
Man, it hits, and the book takes on a new, tragic twist. I have never been to Africa, let alone been involved in hygiene education or well drilling in villages like Lwala, Kenya, or in done AIDS education in rural Rwanda, or the tragedy of a too-dry dam in Marsabit (in what is said to be "the end of Africa, but looks like the end of the world.") I don't usually like photographs in books like this, but the ones here are candid and helpful. But what they don't show are the broken hearts that come after significant betrayals and violations of trust.
Jena, Joel, and the boys in the band and their board -- including some very wise folks, including renowned medical experts -- were not unaware about the cultures of shame or the habits of corruption common in many African lands, but there were still shocked to realize that their beloved ministry partners in African had done hurtful and illegal things.
Relationships had to be severed (and the descriptions of their efforts for honest admission of guilt and possible reconciliation must have been gut-wrenching for her to write.) New layers of financial accountability and due diligence had to be constructed, but, again, much of this book is about relationships and partnership, not systems and bureaucracy. My own heart pounded as I read through these sections, vexed by how it all played out for them in this dangerous season of their work. Jars and Jena and the Blood:Water Mission staff had to come clean with their generous donors about the complexities of partnering with indigenous groups. I won't spoil the intrigue or struggles but the realism portrayed here is both moving and informative and thereby instructive. I'm reminded of the relational brokenness and mistrust we all experience, in one way or another, here in our own patches of the not-yet-realized beloved community. Yes, I am confident that this story is in many ways a universal one (granted, writ large over African skies and rock music venues) that we can all relate to. Sadly.
Which takes Jena and Dan and Charlie and Matthew and Stephen back to Garber. Jena shares another rich conversation with Garber about how to live into hope, realizing we are all called to embrace this messy world, incarnating the love of God as Christ Himself had. There is a chapter in Visions of Vocation where Garber uses a clunky but significant phrase that he seems to have coined: "proximate justice." That is, we can't give up our efforts for a just world just because we don't achieve everything we would wish. In a fallen and conflicted cosmos, peeling back a small piece of the darkness, healing what bit of the torn fabric that we can, is truly better than nothing. The Biblical tradition at its most profound takes seriously the doctrines of a very good creation, a debilitating, radical fall, and a now-but-not-yet redemption where goodness and beauty and shalom are promised, if not fully seen. This isn't quite the same as hard-nosed realism, but is, better, a vision of hopefulness. Learning to live with proximate justice is a wise lesson for us all, and Jena's telling of this part of her story is wise beyond her years.
"I know now," she writes, "that courage is less about driving through war zones in northern Uganda and more about choosing to believe in a good God in the midst of a nearly blinding brokenness."
So slowly by slowly [an African phrase she learned], we build hospital wings, though HIV and cholera still persist. Brick by brick, we bring ten thousand liters of water, even though one hundred thousand are needed. Each day, we wage the long defeat.
Ho! Jena is alluding to Tolkien, a phrase of his used by the aforementioned Dr. Paul Farmer. And, too, it brings to mind Frederick Buechner again, indicating that she has read him carefully, not just swiped the popular line about gladness and calling. She knows that there is a long, even magnificent defeat and that "the God of heaven knits these small pieces together into something beautiful." Which, by the way, is a phrase from a Jars of Clay song. World-traveled, well-read, social entrepreneur that she is, she's still a fan of the band.