“The thing that thrills me is how people are working together. Whether black or white, rich or poor, we’re all in the same boat — and the boat has some holes in it. So, we’re working to rebuild the boat.” —Billy Graham, Nov. 7, 1989
These days, Greoge Clooney and Will.i.Am are the go-to organizers inspiring a nation to help in times of disaster. But 20 years ago it was touring salvation specialist Billy Graham who brought attention to tragic plights.
In the wake of Hurricane Hugo, Gov. Carroll Campbell also lauded the pastor’s visit.
“Hugo came, South Carolina suffered, but it didn’t break us — we’ll be back,” Campbell said at the time. “The work Dr. Graham and Franklin Graham are doing is one of the reasons we’ll be back.”
The 7.0 earthquake in Haiti has left an unknown number dead and an entire nation in turmoil. It’s prompted citizens and governments from around the globe to offer assistance. A lot of the aid — at least in the private and nonprofit sectors — is being driven by religious missionaries who already had deep roots in the struggling island nation.
And Charleston is no different. Days after the tragedy, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley put municipal weight behind Water Missions International, a local Christian nonprofit that provides filtration systems to rural communities without clean water, including those impacted by natural disasters. In a letter to Charleston County staff, County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and Vice Chairman Elliott Summey encouraged employees to provide items for hygiene kits distributed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Humanitarian Fund.
For those disturbed by the pairing of church and state, these kinds of programs cause conflicting emotions. There’s the desire to keep these religious-based organizations away from public support, but then there’s an undeniable need that these organizations are well-positioned to address.
While much of the immediate aid in Haiti has involved getting bottled water to the masses, Water Missions offers an opportunity for more than two decades of clean, drinkable water — something many parts of Haiti never expected to see. In the aftermath of a disaster, good hygiene like that offered in the LDS packs is one of the best ways to prevent illness from spreading through the ranks of those lucky enough to survive.
But, the proselytizing is out there. When Billy Graham visited Charleston 20 years ago, following on the heels of similar mission work in earthquake-ravaged California, he wanted to fulfill the needs of the suffering people — including their weary souls.
“I believe people on the West Coast and the East Coast of the United States are ready to listen to the Gospel today as perhaps they haven’t been ready to listen in a long time,” he said. “You’re worried about your future. Remember, God is already in the future — he’s waiting for you.”
Meet a Need, Then Meet Jesus
Like Graham, Water Missions isn’t secretive about the Christian message that is driving them to help people around the world. A sign behind their reception desk outlining their mission includes corresponding Bible verses.
Molly Greene, who founded Water Missions with her husband, engineer George Greene, is very comfortable speaking about her faith.
“The Lord has called us and given us a mission of what he expects of us,” Molly says.
She’s speaking about her husband’s unique water filtration system, as well as Water Missions’ staff of engineers who continue to improve the equipment. Their goal is to not only provide cleaner water, but water of the quality that we drink in America.
Water Missions’ work includes a strong religious program, referred to as their “non-confrontational” Living Water message. But the first priority is meeting the needs of those suffering, regardless of their willingness to hear about Jesus. The mission has come to the aid of Muslim communities and received support from Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka.
“We’re always abiding by the laws of the land,” Molly says. “When it’s available, they share the word of Christ.”
While all of the staff on the ground are committed Christians, the focus right now is getting the equipment up and running, she says.
“The Lord met needs,” Molly notes. “He didn’t beat people over the head with His message. We’re called to do it, but we’re not pushing it on anyone.”
For a decade, long before Haiti’s lot in life went from bad to worse, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Summerville has been sending missions to a sister church in Bois Brule, a small community on the island of Gonave largely spared in the earthquake, but still perpetually in need. The roster for the mission is a telling indicator of the priorities for these trips, even in non-emergency situations: six medical professionals, including a dermatologist, general doctor, and dentist; two construction workers; and only one priest. This year they hope to add a veterinarian.
“It’s compassion ministry,” says the Rev. Michael Lumpkin.
The LDS Humanitarian hygiene kits supported by the county won’t have God’s label on them. Though affiliated with the Mormon church, the group’s hygiene package guidelines note that items with religious symbols are discouraged. Bonnie Seegmille, an employee with LDS Humanitarian says there is no proselytizing in the disaster relief program.
“We figure it’s part of what we do as a person,” she says of the emergency aid.
Water Missions has just enough resources to send the engineers and trained staff who can get systems up and running and train locals on their use. Beyond that, they partner with faith-based organizations or local leaders already in the community to take care of the long-term program — which includes the religious message, but the focus is still elsewhere, mainly on health and hygiene.
“The priority is to meet these needs before you ever even start to say, ‘Do you know the Lord?,” Molly Greene says.