On a balmy morning in December, staff and volunteers were scattered through the building at Water Missions International in Charleston, S.C., working against the clock to send water treatment systems to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines. Standing by in the warehouse was George Greene III, co-founder of Water Missions, in khakis and a rust-colored pullover. He watched as two men wearing goggles tested a box of pressure relief valves, one of the proprietary technologies designed on the premises.
BANG! The sound echoed through the warehouse, as high pressure triggered the relief mechanism and water gushed out into a large plastic vat. The valve is a small but crucial part of saving lives from Central America to Southeast Asia.
Since 2001, Water Missions has quietly been at work around the world, sending its Living Water Treatment System to disaster areas and also implementing long-term solutions in communities with no access to safe water. According to recent reports, 1.8 billion people in the world today fall into that category, and the results are catastrophic: An estimated 3.4 million individuals die annually from waterborne—and preventable—diseases.
But Water Missions’ goal is bigger than bringing physical health: They want to reach the whole person—to provide drinking water to those they serve, yes, but also the living water of Jesus Christ. More than three decades ago, as an up-and-coming engineer in the oil industry, Greene never imagined he would be doing this sort of work as he approached his 70th birthday. But that was before God spoke to him—twice.
Water Missions’ goal is to provide drinking water to those they serve, yes, but also the living water of Jesus Christ.
A Big Move
It had been a cold night in New Jersey, and Greene was the only one awake. With his wife Molly asleep next to him, and his two young children resting down the hall, he wrestled with anxiety about their future. At 35 years of age, he owned a house and a sailboat, had friends, a promising career. Life was good, and yet something hadn’t been sitting right. He knew it was time to get out of the oil business. But for what? In months prior, the Greenes had started to reconsider the course they had been on. George’s career with Exxon required a pattern of relocating every two years between the States and somewhere abroad. Now that they had children, the prospect of such a rootless life bothered them.
They started investigating places to live, looking for somewhere to start a family business. What the couple knew for certain was that they liked being around water, so they considered the possibility of opening a shop for sailing hardware, or running a marina. That was, until they found a small environmental lab for sale in Charleston.
The lab itself was unimpressive—a single room in need of updating and repairs. “It was a dump,” George told me. Less impressive was the revenue: Expenses totaled $3,000 per month, while the income was a mere $2,600. Yet after spending time with a business analyst, the couple was convinced the lab could make enough money to support their family. That’s all they wanted—just enough to meet their needs and have a comfortable life near the coast.
Back in New Jersey, they weighed the pros and cons, but neither had a sense of peace. As he lay awake on that cold, dark night, George offered a prayer. “Lord, I need to know. I’ve got two kids, a family, a great career.”
And then, to his surprise, came the answer—the first he could remember in his life as a Christian. George, look at all the doors I have been opening for you. This is what I want you to do. Go start this business.
In the following years, the analyst’s prediction was right—beyond what either of the Greenes had imagined possible. General Engineering Laboratories (GEL) began as the smallest among dozens of environmental labs in 1981 and by the late 1990s had become one of South Carolina’s largest. That’s when God spoke again.
It was November 1998, and George was in the car when he heard the headline on the radio: A hurricane had hit Central America. The devastation was especially pronounced in Honduras, and when all losses had been assessed, Hurricane Mitch would become the second most deadly storm in the history of the western hemisphere. As he drove down the interstate, the words came to him—not audibly, but undeniably—from somewhere deep within: George. You need to do something about this.
He remembered a contact they had made in Honduras years before—a bishop of the Episcopal Church—while visiting his daughter who was living there at the time. He sat down at his computer and began to type a message. “What can we do to help? We know a little bit about water.” Yet with circumstances being what they were, he had little confidence the message would arrive. He hit send and went to bed.
The next morning, a reply was waiting. “We need six drinking water units,” the bishop had written. George showed the email to Molly and said, “We need to do this.”
The couple started making phone calls, looking to purchase water systems, but nothing matched the need. George decided they would have to build one themselves. But how? He called one of his company’s chief engineers, and the two sat with textbooks open, talking as George sketched plans for the first Living Water Treatment System—a crude but effective version of the one saving lives today.
They sourced supplies from anywhere they could—hardware stores and industry contacts. Businesses and members of the community donated other materials. With the help of three US Air Force transport planes, by the time the Greenes arrived in Honduras, six water treatment systems, 50 tons of donated goods, and 14 GEL staff were there to join them.
Conditions seemed insurmountable once the team arrived in country, and it took a couple of days for them to reach the first of their destinations. In one spot, the people were now cut off from their sole water source—the one from which the engineers would have to pump: a river the locals were now calling the “river of death.” Debris and corpses had floated downstream following the storm, and no one would come near to drink.
The people watched as the team from Charleston worked. And when the system was ready, they began to pump. Filthy brown water went in, filtered through the membranes, and came out crystal clear, just as planned. But the people held back. The Greenes couldn’t believe it: After all the difficulty—the labor and nearly impossible journey—their work appeared to be for nothing. And then, the realization hit George: they would have to show the water was safe by being the first to partake.
Molly remembers being nervous, but she, like George, tipped back her cup and swallowed it down. And then, the saving moment: A pastor from the community intervened. “These people have come from the United States,” he said. “They’re here to provide us a gift from God.” Then as he began to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the people joined in. And when all had said “Amen,” a line formed at the tap. The people drank water safer than any they had previously consumed.
“It was life-changing,” Molly told me recently. “It was something that you can never get out of your sight, looking back at that time. That was a turning point.”
In the following years, GEL attempted similar projects elsewhere, but with varying degrees of success. They even created a for-profit side of the business focusing exclusively on water treatment in the developing world. But by 2001, George and Molly were dissatisfied. They sensed God calling them away from the business—to take their experience and dedicate it to His purposes. After spending time in conversation and prayer, the couple felt certain it was once again time to make a change. They sold the company and founded Water Missions in 2001.
Since then, the organization has expanded operations beyond disaster relief to include: permanent water- treatment systems in the developing world; specially designed latrines to improve sanitation; and community development, among other initiatives. They’re also working with In Touch Ministries to combine water treatment with evangelism and discipleship efforts—improving both physical and spiritual health.
Like any organization, Water Missions has had its ups and downs. Sometimes they’ve wondered how the funding would come through for a project. But true to what George heard 35 years ago, God has continued to provide.
“When we are in sync with the Lord,” George said, “inviting Him into all of our discussions [through prayer]—starting the day, starting the meeting, ending the meeting—that grace will get us by during the times when we steer the wrong direction.”
In George’s experience, prayer is key, but so is gratitude. “I think God likes to be thanked. He likes for us to recognize when He is doing things. There is a time to reflect and say, ‘Look what God did for us.’”