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The Water of Life

Bringing Hope to the World

By Meghan Ryan   |   Photography by Brenna Kneiss

“There was a guy putting cow manure in water and drinking it … we are going to get on a conference call with him this afternoon.”

Those were the first words I ever heard about Filter of Hope. At the time, I was beginning a yearlong internship with a campus ministry, and my boss wanted us to talk about arranging a spring break trip to Nicaragua. The idea of a mission trip was appealing, so I halfheartedly agreed to join the group on the call. What I didn’t know at the time was that particular phone call was about to change my life.

A thick Tennessee accent came through the speakerphone—Davis Looney, who manages campus partnerships, tells us about Filter of Hope, a nonprofit that specializes in clean water filtration systems. Founder and CEO Bart Smelley has a lofty vision: to eradicate the global water crisis. Every twenty seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease, and there are still billions of people in the world without access to clean drinking water. Smelley created point-of-use water filters that are easy to assemble, user-friendly, and low maintenance. They are also packaged in a way that makes them easy to pack into suitcases to take overseas—but there is nothing small about their impact. Each one can filter 150 gallons of water per day for ten years or longer, and they cost only about forty dollars apiece!


While this amazed all of us on the receiving end of the call, it was the information he told us next that really caught my attention: the water filters are used to share the Gospel. God created the world, and when He did, everything was perfect. When man sinned, he separated himself from God. Sin looks a lot like dirty water, full of junk and unable to clean itself. Even when the water looks clear and clean, it can be full of bacteria and other things capable of making us sick. This can be likened to the way we ourselves might appear on the outside, looking shiny and happy, but on the inside, we are still broken and fallen from grace. God knew we needed a filter, so He sent His only Son, Jesus, who died on the cross and rose from the grave to purify us.

When we put our faith in Christ, He acts as our filter to make us right with God. But sometimes we drink the water of sin, and eventually, we are thirsty again. In Christ, we never have to thirst again, because He provides all we need (John 4:14).

In Christ, we never have to thirst again, because He provides all we need (John 4:14).

I had previously taken part in mission trips—some were designed to help with physical needs and others were designed to help meet spiritual needs. But Filter of Hope beautifully combined both goals. I learned of the organization from the phone call, and I had not even seen the filter in person, but my heart was already beating faster, and I knew I had to be a part of this. I signed up to help lead the team and a few months later, I was boarding a plane for Nicaragua with forty-five college students. There was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something big was about to happen, but it never crossed my mind that God was about to reroute the plans I had for my life.

Fast-forward a year to this past spring: I found myself in Nicaragua again. This time, I was coming off almost a year of working full-time for Filter of Hope and I was right in the middle of three back-to-back trips, hosting teams in Guatemala the week before and after. The team in Nicaragua this year had grown to 110 students.


Everything about organizing a group of this size is overwhelming. Finding flights, booking hotels, and coordinating a week’s worth of meals for over a hundred people in a Third World country is challenging enough for one, but add up the number of people, and you have your work cut out for you. The stress of all that work vanished once the students started arriving. Over a hundred fresh-faced and eager young adults came out of the airport, some were eighteen and had never left the United States before, some were getting ready to graduate, and some were returning after working with Filter of Hope last year. Each one of them came to introduce themselves to the trip leaders. For months, I had seen their names on spreadsheets and documents and flashing across my computer screen, so to put faces to the names was exciting and overwhelming all at once. There was a nervous energy and anticipation over the next couple of hours as we caravanned in three buses from Costa Rica to Popoyo, Nicaragua.

One student, Nicole, who had been rather quiet up until this point, decided to share the Gospel and her story with the two of them.

Each day, the students woke up early to eat breakfast and then broke into groups of five with a translator. The buses dropped them off in nearby communities, and like ants, they scattered to go door-to-door, give out water filters, and share the Gospel with families until lunchtime. After lunch, they would go out again until sundown.

At one particular house, there was a woman, Anna, drawing water from the well in her front yard. The group I tagged along with for the morning approached her and asked if they could assist her, then told her they had a water filter they wanted to give her. Similar to the way our groups demonstrate at every house, they asked for a bucket, and two students took the lead in showing Anna how to set up her filter. There was a man, who we assumed was related to her, lingering around and acting very strangely as we walked her through the setup. Afterward, we got to know a little about her. We learned that the man at the house, Juan, was not related to her and she was allowing him to stay with her family temporarily. One student, Nicole, who had been rather quiet up until this point, decided to share the Gospel and her story with the two of them.

Man takes sip of clean water Filter of Hope Mission Trip Nicaragua 2017
Juan takes his first sip of clean drinking water from the filter.

While Nicole was sharing what God had done in her life, Anna had tears streaming down her face. She said she wanted to trust God that way. As they turned to Juan, he began laughing. He was drunk. He told us he did not believe any of the things Nicole said. He said he would rather be drunk because life is too hard to be sober. Nicole mustered up all the courage she had and told him how she used to abuse drugs and alcohol because she used to feel the same way until she met Jesus. She wept as she spoke to him, but he still would not listen and instead started yelling drunkenly at her in Spanish. Our translator refused to tell us the vulgarities that Juan was saying. A couple of other students prayed with Anna, and we made our way out of the house.

What happened next is something I hope never to forget. All the other students in the group gathered around Nicole and embraced her in a big group hug. They cried together, prayed for her, and encouraged her. These students hadn’t known each other before coming on this trip, but they had become a family. After she had collected herself, Nicole admitted that was the first time she had ever told anyone that part of her story.

While Nicole was sharing what God had done in her life, Anna had tears streaming down her face. She said she wanted to trust God that way.

Moments like this were happening all day, every day. At any point, I could turn and see students praying for each other, crying with each other, and laughing with each other. There were a hundred of them and hundreds of families in great need. Instead of letting the amount of need overwhelm them, it compelled the students to go after the one: the one child, the one family, the one house. It was not about the number of filters, but the quality time spent with each person they encountered. They took the time to foster friendships with each of the translators, cooks, and hotel managers. On the last day, there were only enough filters left for each group to go to one more house. With applause and cheering as they boarded the buses, they set out expecting big things to happen for the very last house and came back with so many stories to tell! Students stood up at the last dinner to share stories, praise their new friends, and explain how they would take everything they had learned back home with them.


The only word that can describe the week is hopeful. There are thousands of college students sacrificing their spring breaks to serve others. They are spending hours in the hot sun, sleeping without air conditioning, and giving to people who will never be able to repay them. These students are the future; they will be parents, doctors, lawyers, business owners, and movers and shakers of the world. Hundreds of Nicaraguans tasted clean water for the first time and now have hope for healthier and longer lives. More than that, they found hope in Christ and purpose for their lives.

These are just some of the stories of one team in one country. This past spring break alone, six hundred college students from eighteen different campuses traveled with Filter of Hope to six countries and gave out over three thousand water filters.

Filter of Hope leads teams from colleges, high schools, churches, and other organizations on trips several times each year. While it is still a small, very new company, the demand for trips and water filters has grown rapidly worldwide. Filter of Hope is about more than bringing clean water to those who need it most; it is bringing hope to those who need it most.


—V—


Filter of Hope is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To learn more about Filter of Hope and how you can get involved, visit FilterofHope.org.



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