In a clearing within Holly Springs National Forest, dozens of people are gathered holding small cups. The cups are filled with recently cleaned water from a nearby lake, and when the people drink the water, they’re participating in one of Clean Water U’s highlights — the water celebration.

Clean Water U is a weeklong intensive training course hosted by Living Waters for the World (LWW). Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, LWW is a mission of the Synod of Living Waters that provides sustainable clean water to communities in need while fostering long-term partnerships between volunteers and those communities.

“This is a model for ways to engage as the church,” said Steve Young, LWW’s executive director. “I have learned something on my own faith journey from this. And that’s from ‘me and Jesus’ to ‘God calls us into community.’”

At Clean Water U — hosted at Hopewell Camp and Conference Center here and Calvin Crest Conferences in Oakhurst, Calif. — volunteers from across the country participate in a variety of workshops in three tracks in which they learn the logistics, mechanics and spiritual and health curriculum involved in installing a water system.

After a church or organization has members trained in each of the three tracks, it can begin planning a water-focused mission trip. In its 20 years, LWW has installed more than 500 clean water systems all over the world. Partnership and sustainability are key to the ministry’s mission.

Volunteers and communities in need of clean water — called initiating partners and operating partners — must agree on a business plan detailing how the water system will be installed and maintained. Community and partnership also exists within the Clean Water U participants, who are bound by a calling to clean water ministry. In a time when the world — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — seems so divided, Clean Water U is a place where people set aside their differences for the common good, Young said.

As an outreach of the Synod of Living Waters, LWW is a witness to the power of the connectional church, said Terry Newland, synod executive.

“I can’t tell you the witness you have made — not only to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but to the Christian church across the country,” Newland said at the water celebration.

Clean Water U is perhaps unique in the denomination as being the first short-term mission academy that equips volunteers with training and missiology before sending them out into the field. The Synod of the Sun now runs a solar-power ministry called Solar Under the Sun, in which participants attend Solar School, where they learn how to design and install solar power systems for communities in need of electricity.

Moderator Neal Presa and others participate in Clean Water U's water celebration.

Moderator Neal Presa and others participate in Clean Water U's water celebration. —Living Waters for the World

“The learnings of this are exponential,” said the Rev. Neal Presa, moderator of the 220th General Assembly. “I am deeply grateful for this ministry and for what the Lord has in store.”

In addition to LWW’s 20th anniversary, this year also marks the retirement of founder and former executive director Wil Howie. At the water celebration, LWW leaders introduced the Wil Howie International Scholarship Fund, which will allow international operating partners to attend Clean Water U.

“To God be the glory. It’s not about me. It’s not about any of you. To God be the glory,” Howie said. “May God bless us all. May God use us all. Don’t lose your passion. Be willing to be crazy.”

At the water celebration, participants drink the water that was cleaned that week by Clean Water U students. The celebration is the culmination of a week of learning and working as a community, but the story is just getting started.

“They didn’t just learn about water technology,” Young said. “The Holy Spirit moved among them.”

At its 20th anniversary celebration in September, LWW recorded video testimonials from Presbyterian leaders.

Click here to watch a video featuring Moderator Neal Presa. 

Click here to watch a video featuring Tom Taylor, president of the Presbyterian Foundation; Patrick Heery, editor of Presbyterians Today; and Jack Haberer, editor and publisher of The Presbyterian Outlook.