John Bevier on visiting Kenya and Water for South Sudan

Salva and John at our 2016 fundraising brunch in Rochester.

Salva and John at our 2016 fundraising brunch in Rochester.

John Bevier was invited by Reverend Fred Reynolds and Nancy Frank to join Jim Blake in representing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on a trip to Kenya. John immediately accepted and after many evening meetings at Nancy’s house discussing what to expect, he and Jim traveled to the Burea Theological College, where St. Paul’s had already drilled a well, to attend a consecration and “Giving Thanks” celebration.   

During that trip John and Jim also had the opportunity to visit the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Despite it being a long, hot and bumpy two-day drive in the back of a pick-up truck, they both wanted to go. “At the time, Kakuma housed 90,000 people living within this UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) controlled, barbed wire encircled, “City.” We saw people fighting, disease and malnutrition, and I even had a woman ask me to take her infant child out of the camp because she feared that he would not survive,” said John.

For John it was easy to go to Africa, but difficult to come back. He shared a story about his daughter who was in middle school at the time. John took her shopping for a new pair of jeans and the brand she wanted cost $90. When John commented on the price she argued that this was what all of her friends were wearing. John said, “I had to remember that her perspective was American. It was difficult to realign myself with life here having seen these people in the refugee camp. They were there through no fault of their own, it was not the consequence of poor choices; it was just the circumstance of being born where they were. We are at the top of the wealth and resource pyramid, but don’t realize it quite as fully until we experience the contrast via the experience of visiting a refugee camp!”

John knew WFSS Founder Salva Dut through St. Paul’s and Chris and Louise Moore. Salva knew that John was going to Africa and he introduced him to another South Sudanese whom had immigrated to Rochester via the UNHCR Refugee Resettlement Act named Michael. Michael had fallen in love with a young Sudanese woman in Kakuma Refugee Camp and wanted to get married. To do so he had to provide a dowry to the family. Michael entrusted John with money to buy cows for the family in Africa so that he could marry their daughter.

When John arrived in Kenya he went to the bank to have the currency changed. He then met with the family inside Kakuma and gave them the money. The girl’s uncle, her father had died in the civil war, said that Michael needed to provide more cows. They had been wiped out by the war and the family needed to build up their herd again. John asked them, “Do you appreciate how extraordinary Michael is? He arrived in Rochester having never seen snow, not knowing English, not knowing how to use basic kitchen appliances, he went to school and got a job. And on his small salary he was able to save this money.” They said “Yes, yes, yes, we love Michael.” They did grant permission for Michael to marry their daughter.

Salva left the Kakuma Refugee Camp not knowing where his family was or if they were alive. Years later, when he learned that his father was alive, he went back to South Sudan to visit him. The regional doctor told Salva that his father would die without a source of clean water. “This planted the seed that would become Water for Sudan in Salva’s heart and mind,” John said.

John and Salva started meeting at lunchtime. They would walk around the block in John’s neighborhood having long talks. “We agreed that water is the basis of life,” said John, “I wanted to help Salva find a way to bring water to his people.” John helped Salva put together their first business plan and come up with a name for the new venture. “Marketing folks advise you to name your company what it is,” John stated, “Water for Sudan said it all.” (In 2011, when South Sudan gained its independence the name was changed to Water for South Sudan.)

“As WFSS grew and became more multi-denominational (initially St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was at the center of WFSS) it was amazing how coincidence on top of coincidence occurred,” remembered John, “out of the blue Scott Arrington made time to help and he set-up the articles of incorporation and 501 (c)(3). Then Chris (Moore) and Nancy (Frank) jumped in and when we were wanting to begin drilling our own wells, unlike our first year of contracting an external company, which of course increased the real cost of creating each well, along came John Turner and bought our first drilling rig. It became clear that this was bigger than us. Salva had a calling and he was being guided.”

John did not expect WFSS to become what it is today, but he is not the least bit surprised. “Salva is magnetic, he is humble and courageous, and he speaks from the heart. There is no façade and he has a high level of integrity and honesty,” John remarked. “People see the opportunity to give back the gift of pure water, a substance without which life can’t be sustained, and something we can so easily take for granted, and they are called to help.”

John’s proudest accomplishment within his association with WFSS is that his chance trip to Kenya with Jim Blake, over time, along with the efforts and spirit of so many hundreds and hundreds of wonderful people across the USA and Europe, helped so many hundreds of thousands of rural Africans, and became a powerful life-saving change agent initiative. “Anybody who goes over to Africa becomes a bridge,” said John. “In the U. S. we have technology and wealth, but we tend to forget family and spirituality; in the refugee camp although they had very little material resources, the people had an incredible sense of family, community, and God.” John also noted that he was proud that he “got out of the way” when it was time. By leaving the Board of Directors when he did, John opened up a seat for someone with the skills needed at the time to come on board.   

“I hope that the Board and anyone involved never loses that the sense of wonder that has propelled WFSS forward hasn’t just been the people; there is a powerful, mysterious, benevolent force behind WFSS that drives it forward and guarantees success,” John concluded.