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Local Catholics help bring scarce clean water to thirsty around world

SEVENTH IN A SERIES: Throughout 2020, the Catholic Review will explore the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. In this edition of the series, we explore giving drink to the thirsty.

Kurt Duckett, a driver for Saval Foods, drops off cases of water to the Franciscan Center. (Courtesy Franciscan Center)

It’s one of the first things a Scout is taught around a campfire: Humans can survive longer without food than they can without water.

While that concerns staying hydrated, there is the complementary matter of public health.

Carlos Aguilar directs a major water project in El Salvador for Baltimore-­based Catholic Relief Services, the international relief agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He mentioned cholera, dysentery and hepatitis A among the pathogens that can spread through food and water.

“Inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene is a grave, preventable problem that ends up killing millions of people every year,” Aguilar told the Review via email. “Vulnerable people, namely infants and the elderly, don’t just get diarrhea. They get dehydrated, and then they die.”

Well before the coronavirus pandemic magnified the issue, a joint report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF noted that 40 percent of the world’s population “do not have a handwashing facility with soap and water on premises.”

It’s a matter of life and death in the developing world, and to those experiencing homelessness. From Baltimore to India, fortunately, someone is doing something about it.

One bag, two bottles

The Franciscan Center, one of the city’s three major Catholic soup kitchens, tripled its meal service in response to the pandemic. Every meal in its “grab-and-go” service includes two bottles of water, as it distributes 3,000 a week.

“Our motto is ‘food is life,’ but water comes first,” said Jeffrey Griffin, its executive director. “When you think of the normal challenges we deal with every day, you can’t face them without water. You become susceptible to disease. When this (the pandemic) began, businesses shut their doors. When you’re homeless, where do you go for water?”

The issue has particular resonance for Griffin and Steven Allbright, the facility’s director of food services.

“Steve and I are both recovering alcoholics,” Griffin said. “There is no hope in fighting that challenge without enough water to function every day. Imagine being on the street right now.  Water is still hard to come by for many.”

Sysco Foods and the Performance Food Group, two of the Franciscan Center’s major donors, include bottled water in their contributions to the mission on 23rd Street in north Baltimore. Volunteers from St. Andrew by the Bay in Annapolis deliver food and 10 cases of bottled water every Wednesday.

Nothing’s Wasted

People collect clean drinking water from a tanker sent by government authorities as part of measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in San Jose, Costa Rica, March 14. The Vatican has said that defending the right to clean water is part of the Catholic Church’s promotion of the common good. (Juan Carlos Ulate, Reuters/CNS photo)

Of the 100 countries where CRS has a presence, 35 benefit from its water and sanitation programs. While Sub-­Saharan Africa is a literal hotspot, an estimated half of the world’s population live where water scarcity can be an issue at least one month a year.

Three-quarters of those affected live in Asia, where the late Jesuit Father Francis McGauley spent 31 years as a missioner, in India.

Father McGauley became an associate pastor of St. Ignatius in Baltimore in 2000. He ran its St. Francis Xavier House of Prayer, offered homilies on the Radio Mass that originated at the parish, and counseled members of the Catholic Men’s Fellowship from two parishes in northern Baltimore County through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

“He was happy to join us, but he wanted to do it as just one of the men, not as a leader,” said Rob Bart, a parishioner of the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier. “Father Frank had a humble heart. When his health deteriorated, we would fight to see who was going to drive him from Woodstock (St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Parish) to treatment in Timonium. We all wanted his wisdom.”

Father McGauley died in July 2008, but his spirit lives on through Nothing’s Wasted, founded by Bart’s fellow parishioners and friends from St. Joseph in Cockeysville. Their annual fundraiser includes food prepared by Bart’s son, Tre, a seminarian for the archdiocese.

Jesuit Father Francis McGauley

The effort’s name is inspired by stories Father McGauley told about India. Villagers might face a long hike to get water, which was probably tainted. What was boiled for cooking was recycled for bathing, washing clothes and watering crops.

In the Diocese of Jamshedpur, about 200 miles west of Kolkata, those tasks have gotten easier thanks to Nothing’s Wasted, which has provided the funds for more than 100 wells in 95 villages.

“About 60,000 people (including 4,000 students) are benefitting,” ­Father Arun Walter Kongari, the priest who coordinates the effort, told the Review via email.

Father Kongari said that other than heavy machine operators, all labor is donated by villagers. Families donate 10 rupees a month (13 cents American) to maintain the wells, a fund that is maintained by the Women’s Association in each village.

Father Kongari visits Baltimore every other year, to thank the men of Nothing’s Wasted. They, in turn, thank Father McGauley.

“It’s a way to honor him,” Bart said.

Email Paul McMullen at pmcmullen@CatholicReview.org

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