When Jena Lee Nardella graduated from college at 22, she had a dream to bring clean water to thirsty, third-world communities in Africa. After the meeting the band Jars of Clay, which already had a heart for the clean-water cause, Nardella teamed up with them to start the organization Blood:Water, which she leads today.
As the mission moved forward, Jena and her team came up with the idea for the 1,000 Wells Project, which would entail digging 1,000 wells in Africa while simultaneously providing support for African communities wrestling in the grip of HIV/AIDS. The number seemed overwhelming to Jena in 2005, but Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine told her, “A thousand is a number that only God is comfortable with, so if we reach that one day, we’ll know it is of God and not ourselves.”
In 2011, Blood:Water dug its 1,000th well, and during its nine-year history, the organization has raised over $24 million to address the clean water and HIV/AIDS crises in 11 African countries. Jena was kind enough to take a little time to share with us about her journey in dreaming big for God, and it includes some great advice for those who feel like they are serving Christ through lost causes.
1. If it weren’t for Jars of Clay, a popular Christian band, your organization probably would have never been so successful. Do you feel like it’s a reflection of the shallowness of Christians that it often takes someone on stage to get us excited about serving those in need?
I don’t think this is an issue of being shallow. It is a noisy world out there with so many causes begging for our attention. People need some way to know which ones to trust or pay attention to — so when a band they love invites them into a greater story of compassion for Africa, the response has been compassionate and generous. People of influence can certainly get us caught up in issues of celebrity, but they can also choose instead to call us to our better selves. I think Jars of Clay has done that with Blood:Water.
2. Many of our readers volunteer to help individuals whose needs seem to always outweigh the supply of support. What do you say to someone like that who’s getting frustrated and feels like his work is a lost cause?
In high school, my classmates voted me Most Likely to Devote my Life to a Lost Cause, and I took it as a compliment. I think the thing about lost causes is they’re only lost if you leave them behind. If you stick with it and keep hoping in action and not just in feeling, you may discover that they are not lost after all.
Real change does not happen overnight. It sometimes does not even happen in a lifetime. The key is to celebrate the small successes along the way and to welcome the setbacks with an opportunity to learn and pray and choose over and over again to stick with it. And try not to do it alone. That’s what community is for — to keep pushing us forward in those moments of doubt and disappointment.
3. What’s the closest you ever came to giving up on the work of Blood:Water, and what brought you back from the brink?
There was a season when fundraising for the mission was dwindling. The recession had just hit alongside other international humanitarian disasters that took the attention and generosity away from our friends in Africa. I felt like our team was putting its best efforts out there to raise the resources we needed for our African partners, and nothing was working. I started wondering if it was God’s way of nudging me out of the work, but it was actually God’s way of teaching me about the virtues of patience, persistence, hope and faith. We have doubled in growth since.
4. People hear about building wells and providing HIV/AIDS support and have idealized visions of what it must be like to do that work, but you undoubtedly come across people who just want to use you to get what they need. What is your heart attitude to those folks?
I had a longtime friend and partner in Africa who misused some of our grant money for personal gain. I felt betrayed and hurt because we had spent so many years working together to provide thousands of people with clean water. The truth is, we are all broken people, and we make bad decisions along the way. It happens in our own country all of the time. But it hurt to realize that you could pour your heart and life into something that may never actually love you back. The thing that brought me back into it was the decision to choose to love the world and the work even if it sometimes hurts. I learned so many lessons from that experience. Blood:Water is stronger, and I think, in many ways, so am I.
5. How has your faith in Jesus changed since you began this work?
As my world has expanded beyond the boundaries of the United States, I have come to realize that there is so much that I still don’t know about the person of Jesus and the nature of God. I have also come to stand in awe of how love can be the greatest force for change in the world. Jesus lived that out and told us so. Only through walking the dusty paths of Africa with communities working toward their dream for clean water have I begun to believe what Jesus really meant about loving God and loving our neighbor.
Thanks so much to Jena for taking the time to talk with us. If you’re interested in learning more about her work or contributing in some way, you can check out her website at Blood:Water.