TRUE STORIES OF WORLD CHANGERS WHO STARTED ALONE: This month we share stories of individual Christians who couldn’t wait for others to tell them when to help the hurting and share the gospel. Their clear vision of a pressing need pushed them to do what they could as soon as they could.
By Daren Wendell
Am I living? I mean, really living? I remember that thought crossing my mind as I sat with my Bible, drinking my morning coffee.
As a youth pastor at a large church in Wisconsin, I had to admit, I wanted for little. I was single, making the most money I had ever made (i.e., more than minimum wage), and felt comfortable with my friends and ministry. Yet the nagging thought wouldn’t go away. In fact, there were several others. How did God wire me? What legacy am I leaving? What is my responsibility to those in need? What is life to the full?
A few years earlier I had taken a few months off to ride my bicycle across the country—4,400 miles. I did so because I wanted to get outside my church building and be the church just like I preached to my students. Out on my bike, with no obligations or responsibilities, I let God lead me as I prayed for opportunities to serve and encourage.
As I sat in the coffee shop that day, I thought about how I had never felt more alive or in tune with God than during that time on the road. I knew God was calling me to let go of my life as I knew it, and let him take control once again.
To prove to myself I had the guts to obey, I parted with everything I owned, with the exception of a backpack and some memories, and resigned from my job at the church. Because I felt gifted in long-distance challenges, I launched what is known as The Earth Expedition, which is a fancy way of saying I set out on a quest to walk around the world.
Walking for a Cause
It sounded crazy, I know, but all I knew at the time was I needed to walk and God would take care of the rest. I wanted to walk for a cause, so I looked into several organizations doing work in the name of Jesus. Blood:Water Mission answered their phone, took interest in what I was doing, and a partnership was formed. So I began walking for a cause I actually knew very little about—the water crisis.
I formed many friendships while I walked the Appalachian Trail, and I was frequently asked why I was walking. During 3,400 miles of walking the United States, I found I had loads of time to seek answers to the questions. By the end, I was well-informed and blown away by the need.
Prior to my walk, I met a fellow Blood:Water Mission volunteer named Amie Hadaway, who was also dedicated to the cause. She offered to be my liaison to the world, and helped to tell the story. By the time I had finished walking the U.S., the story had been featured in nearly 40 newspapers, covered in magazines such as Men’s Heath, Men’s Fitness, Relevant, and Vanity Fair, and had even been featured in short documentary films.
Because we were making daily sacrifices on our own, we found people were inspired to do things themselves for the sake of clean water—many who had never done anything before. More than a year passed, and though I had finished the walk, Amie and I didn’t want the momentum to end. We felt called to create an organization, ActiveWater, that would come alongside the God-sized dreams and passions that everyone has. And we wanted to help ordinary people use those dreams and passions as a platform for kingdom work—raising funds and awareness for those without clean water.
Nonprofits for Dummies
We still joke today about how neither one of us had any knowledge or education on how to start a nonprofit. In faith, we went to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of Nonprofit Kit for Dummies. It was nerve-racking, but we quickly learned if God calls you to do something, he will also qualify you to do it. I am proud to say in the nearly five years of ActiveWater’s existence, more than $1.2 million has been raised for clean water initiatives in Africa and Asia. I praise God not only for the incredible work and hope he has brought to his people overseas, but for the work he has done through individuals here in the States.
Over and over again, I have seen God bless the small acts of faith by using young individuals who want to make a difference. For example, athletes run, musicians sing, artists paint, and youth groups put their brainstorming skills together.
Emily and Allyson were junior high school students who heard about the need and wanted to help through their sewing skills. I remember receiving an e-mail from them that said they were sewing small, plush bird ornaments for $5 each and hoped to raise $500. Little did they know God would multiply their endeavor and use their Birds of Hope, as they called them, to raise more than $50,000.
And while my job as executive director at Active Water requires that I spend a lot of time behind a desk these days, I know God has designed me as an athlete. He still requires me to use my body for his purposes, and still calls me to athletic feats.
In 2011, I swam 50.6 miles nonstop across Lake Michigan, raising more than $14,000 in a campaign called The Swim to Chicago. After a year passed, I realized I wasn’t ready to retire, so I devised a new plan. Starting in January 2015, I will run across the U.S. in a campaign called RunDarenRun. Running more than a marathon a day for 100 consecutive days, from Santa Monica Pier in California to Times Square in New York, my support team and I hope to raise $100,000 for safe, clean, accessible water in Zambia.
You may be thinking the task seems too great. But our God is greater than the task, and what God calls us to do, he qualifies us to achieve. I just can’t count on picking up a Dummies book on this one.
Daren Wendell is cofounder and executive director of ActiveWater in Kalamazoo, Michigan.