Our sister-parish relationship between Heartland Presbyterian Church and the community of El Tablon is a profound example of relation-centered missions, which means that it is the source of great joy, great frustration, and change. Water is a great example. When Heartland first voted to step into a long-term relationship with El Tablon, one of the areas that the people of El Tablon had identified for us as needing attention was the need for potable water. We accepted the challenge of addressing the need for water with little understanding of what that meant.
El Tablon is a poor community. When we first went there, there was no electricity, no running water, and most of the homes were made of stick or mud block. The primary water source represented a difficult task for many people in ET, as they had to walk a fairly long, narrow path to get to a little trickle that came out of the side of a mountain. The trickle ran into a small pool (maybe 3 feet x 3 feet, and 8-10 inches deep), where the people would dip their bowls over and over, pouring the water into the plastic jugs that they brought with them. It was very time consuming and people would queue up and have to visit with one another for a long time as they awaited their turn to get water. As a result, they would use their water smartly and sparingly, since it was not readily available for them.
I stooped into the crevice with a little flashlight to follow the trail of where the water comes from through the mountain. About 10 feet in, the water source went up the wall above my head and when I pointed my light up there, twelve million bats came fluttering down and flying out of the hole. Dang! Didn't see that coming!
The curious thing at the water hole was a huge, concrete water containment unit that was supposed to collect water during the rainy season and dispense it during the dry season. When I looked inside, it was practically empty, with just enough moisture at the bottom to glisten when I flashed my light in there. There were also lots of leaves, tiny branches, and a few creepy-crawlers in there. It was my understanding at the time that the rainy seasons did not always replenish the container well enough for it to last during the dry season. It also needed some maintenance, but the community did not have the money to perform what was needed, so the unit mostly was unused.
In the end, we (together) decided together that the best solution would be for El Tablon to have its own well- perhaps the kind with a manual wheel connected to it for drawing water. (They've come a long way since Jack and Jill, even with manual wells.) We hired a geology company that came out to measure water tables and discern the best location for the well. Then, there was the process of purchasing the land, which meant tracking down all six children of the dead guy whose land we were buying. After the lone family holdout finally relented and agreed to sign off on the land, the crew came in and began to dig. Understand that this was a long process. The plan was set in place before the earthquake, the execution of the plan followed the earthquake. I am only mentioning the earthquake because, in the end, the attempt to dig a well failed. The water tables had shifted as a result of the earthquake and El Tablon was no longer considered a viable place for digging a well. Dang.
When we discovered that a well was no longer a possibility, we were sitting in a circle in a small room in Berlin. The last person from El Tablon to speak posed a question in my direction, which the translator translated for me. "What should we do?" It was weird for me to have these folks- from whom I need to learn so much, and for whom I try never to assume superior insight- look at me and ask about something that will affect their lives long after I'm back in the comforts of my own home. I was dumbstruck and simply said, "I don't know what is best for you to do, but I can promise you that whatever you decide, we'll walk with you."
Strangely, that seemed to be as good as it was going to get. A relationship is never built on the assumption that one party is going to perfectly supply all of the other party's wants, needs, or desires. Instead, a relationship is built on being committed to one another for the journey. And when we ran out of answers that money or ingenuity could supply, we discovered relationship.