During a medical mission trip to Honduras during the early 2000s, Sister Larraine Lauter was walking around a village with a local priest so she could familiarize herself with the people and places she would be serving. As they passed a particular home, the priest told her, “This family was going to host you for supper tonight, but they can’t. Their two-year-old daughter just died because of dirty water.”
Stunned by this news, it planted a seed in Sister Larraine’s mind that eventually led her to embark on a mission to provide clean water to the citizens of that village. And that mission led to the creation of the charity Water With Blessings, which has impacted the lives of more than 100,000 people in poor countries around the world. Sister Larraine joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss her work.
At the time Sister Larraine first encountered the dirty water problem, she wasn’t sure what she could do about it. After all, her full-time work back in Kentucky consisted of being a liturgist and choir director. And she couldn’t even communicate with the Honduran people because she didn’t speak their language.
But several years later, Sister Larraine had learned Spanish, so she accompanied a Methodist medical mission group to the same area. One of its leaders told her that half the people waiting in line to see a doctor wouldn’t need one if they could clean up the water. This made sense to Sister Larraine, whose work in triage showed that 50 percent of cases involved stomach parasites.
Along with Arnie LeMay and Jim Burris from the Methodist group, Sister Larraine tried instituting one big community-wide filtration system, with one person being in charge of it. Despite all the work that went into setting it up, it only lasted a week.
The reason, explained Sister Larraine, is that once the people who build the system leave, local power dynamics come into play. And in a community that’s struggling to survive, that makes things complicated. She said, “In a community of survival, there’s a good chance that whoever presents themselves as being in charge there has been ruthless to be in charge. These are not democratic societies. It’s just a reality. And maybe it’s so that they can feed their children. No judgments. When you bring in something under [the] assumptions that – Oh, everyone’s going to happily sing Kumbaya around this – you may be being pretty naive. The World Health Organization and the UN both point out that 90 percent of shared solutions – some kind of infrastructure that you brought in or large scale system – 90 percent of those fail within a year. That’s a lot of money down the drain, literally.”
After that initial failure, Sister Larraine tried a smaller approach, purchasing 10 Sawyer 0.1 filters, each of which could clean the water for about four families. They contacted a local Catholic church, with strong Franciscan-led lay leadership, and asked what the best solution was for distribution. Instead of seeking out someone with power to lead the effort, church leaders suggested offering the opportunity to those in the most humble of circumstances: mothers of young children.
Motivated by the idea that “blessings are for sharing” – even in the poorest of communities where people don’t know if they’ll have food to eat the next day – a meeting was held where the names of all the mothers willing to serve were put in a bucket. Then those in attendance prayed for God’s will to guide the choices, after which a child picked names out of the bucket. Each “water woman,” as they’ve come to be called, receives training to set up the filter so that it helps four families.
Sister Larraine said, “I was relieved because I had come to understand that so many times, outsiders come into a poor community…and without intending to, they create division in the community, because you never have enough for everyone. But when you set up something that everyone gets to share in some way – or at least it’s understood that you’re not dividing between who got it and who didn’t – you’re building community…Those two pieces – that blessings are for sharing and we’re going to let God choose – are the foundation of our program. As it went on, we began to see, ‘Wow, this is working! This is having a lot of impact.’ Every filter we buy is serving four families.”
With the success of that initial project, efforts kept growing and expanding, eventually becoming the nonprofit Water With Blessings. Sister Larraine said, “We’re on track to train 30,000 women this year. We’ve got about 145,000 trained to date. A huge percentage of those are in Haiti and Honduras, but through a lot of other areas as well…If we can do a sustained program where we are working towards 25 percent of the households in a community having a water woman…100 percent of the community will have reasonable access to clean drinking water [because each serves four families]. You are changing health outcomes overnight…Dirty water causes…a lot of daily disease for people that really compromises their ability to earn a living, to provide for their families, to go to school successfully. I think there’s nothing more important you can do if you want to help a community change and thrive than start with cleaning up the water.”
Sister Larraine’s focus on helping those in need stems from a childhood experience of her mother taking her to a nursing home for the mentally ill when she was five years old. “I always say our mother was willing to break our hearts,” she recalled. “She let [my sister and I] see that people suffer and that we could do something, even in our own way. We had to toil over making these stacks of little cards, little handmade written notes for these people. This nursing home was horrific…[But my mother taught us], ‘You will look this in the eye and you will do something.'”
The ecumenical spiritual background in which Sister Larraine was raised also played a role in her faith formation. She said, “I always say I was raised Batholic. My mother was a temporary convert. We went to Catholic schools all our lives. Also, when we moved up here to Kentucky, there was a local Baptist church, because we didn’t have a parish in our own little town here. They took us in when our mother got sick, sort of made sure we had a church experience. These church ladies picked us up and took us to church, took us to Sunday school. Our Baptist church had a weekly potluck, which was the highlight of our week because it’s a real meal…I think both of those aspects really formed me spiritually…I was [also] very influenced by the saints…and the importance and the experience of Eucharist.”
Water With Blessings is also an ecumenical organization, helping people of all faiths or none. Sister Larraine notes, “God’s thirsty children are not interested in our boundaries or our borders between our different faiths.”
Working with the women in these communities has strengthened Sister Larraine’s own spiritual life. She said, “I often hear people on the plane, mission groups, talking about, ‘We’re going to go bring Jesus to these people.’ And I think, ‘You don’t understand. You will meet Jesus in them in a way that you never have before, if your heart is open to that.’ It’s a beautiful gift that they have for us…When we take these mission trips, we’re going to people who have great material poverty, and we’re sharing, honestly, a very small amount of what we have to alleviate that material poverty. And in return, they are sharing with us from their spiritual wealth. Often, we do not recognize that as a church in the United States, we have to struggle with a lot of spiritual poverty ourselves. Ironically, our material wealth is something that threatens our spiritual well-being more than we realize. When we’re awake to that, then God can work in our lives. Then we can receive abundantly from the spiritual wealth of those who we are serving.”
(To listen to my full interview with Sister Larraine Lauter, click on the podcast link):