They're lined up to purchase the simplest of necessities: clean drinking water. Around 10 a.m.—more than 2,000 gallons later—the line of hundreds dissipates. The overwhelming demand has drained the massive water storage tanks housed inside the church. Those still waiting shuffle away, empty bottles in tow. They'll be back tomorrow morning when the tanks have refilled and the distribution point is again open for business.
This happens seven days a week outside Asamblea de Dios Central (Central Assembly of God). As a result, the neighborhood around it is being changed. The poor are being cared for. The sick are being made well. And a local church on a busy street corner is becoming a community hub.
These results can be seen throughout the Dominican Republic, thanks to a Denver-based organization called Healing Waters International (HWI). Founded in 2002 by former missionary Tom Larson, HWI installs water-purification systems in churches in developing countries. Healing Waters has installed 41 purification projects in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Kenya.
"The infrastructure is there, especially in urban areas like La Romana or Santo Domingo. You can turn on a faucet, and most of the time water comes out, but it's contaminated," Larson explains. "Everyone knows it, but not everyone can afford to buy purified water at the neighborhood store."
He references the latest United Nations statistic indicating more than 1.1 billion people worldwide don't have access to clean water. Semi-developed nations like the Dominican Republic aren't even reflected in that number, because its residents do have access to safe water. It's available on retail shelves.
HWI addresses this problem through the local church. The organization installs $20,000 water-purification systems that combine chlorination, carbon filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light to transform contaminated tap water into water that's purer than most bottled water sold in the U.S. Every system is set up in a local church, which then sells five gallons of water at a set price of 10 pesos (compared to 40 pesos at the local market).
"The water costs so much less than the retail price, it might as well be free," Larson says. "By charging a small fee, we ensure that every project is self-sustaining."
Each project creates two full-time jobs and one part-time job. A percentage of the gross sales revenue covers these salaries and other costs, including the local water and electric bill, consumables like bottle caps and chlorine, and maintenance.
The church is required to dedicate a certain percentage of the net revenue to community service, a stipulation stemming from Larson's brief stint as a missionary in 1997.
"What we do is born out of two things," he says. "A desire to make clean water available to people who can't afford it and a frustration we experienced with local churches here that had no vision at all for ministry. Through these water systems, we're able to expand their vision."
The scope of the community service is largely left in the hands of the local pastor. Ramon Rodriguez, pastor of Cristo Justicia Nuestro (Christ Our Justice) in the Santo Domingo slum of Gualey, uses the water project revenue to care for neighborhood drug addicts, provide medicine for local AIDS patients and host feasts for the hundreds of children living in tin shacks along the nearby Ozama River.
In La Vega, a slum northwest of Santo Domingo, Antonio del Rosario, pastor of Iglesia el Camino uses the funds to provide clothes and food for families in the neighborhood. He says the results are as clear as the water his church distributes.
"I can't say to the community 'I love you' if I don't serve them and try to meet their needs," del Rosario says. "This water project helps us do that. Because of it, every door in every house in this neighborhood is open to our church. They will always invite us in."
Debbie Blue is a pastor at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minn., which sponsored the La Romana system. She sees the HWI methodology as an ideal solution to the "big brother" perception that often plagues U.S. mission efforts in developing nations.
"The way HWI does it fits our church's philosophy," she says. "It's a better use of our resources to empower those communities to meet their own needs."
In La Romana, that empowerment produces much more than healthy communities; it produces hope. Distributing more than 60,000 gallons a month, Asamblea de Dios Central boasts the highest revenue stream of any HWI project. That income is being poured back into its community and will be used to fund a new purification system in one of its daughter churches elsewhere in the city. Larson underlines how significant that is.
"We won't be subsidizing from Denver. We'll be sponsoring new Dominican Republic projects that are funded by existing projects like La Romana." He smiles and shakes his head, amazed at the potential. "Helping people get clean water is what we do. But the byproduct is giving these churches the vision and resources to go out into the world, and that's exciting."