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Minnesota church group helps brings blessed waters to Cuba

BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- Hector Bruce sat on his heels in the living room of his Burnsville townhouse and popped a brass plumbing fitting out of its packaging. He carefully added it to the puzzle of tubes, elbows, pipes and filters slowly taking shap...

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BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- Hector Bruce sat on his heels in the living room of his Burnsville townhouse and popped a brass plumbing fitting out of its packaging. He carefully added it to the puzzle of tubes, elbows, pipes and filters slowly taking shape on the white carpet.

“I’m putting everything together here first to make sure I have everything I need,” he explained. “Because we know we can’t buy parts in Cuba.”

On Thursday, Bruce and seven other Minnesotans affiliated with the Episcopal Church flew to Cuba with two large plastic bins containing parts to install water purification systems in two churches in the southeastern part of the island. It’s the group’s second trip in two years and their small contribution toward easing the Cuban water crisis.

Cuba’s public water system is in disrepair and the water often is not safe to drink. The Cuban government is making an effort to replace pipes in Havana, the capital, with a multimillion-dollar line of credit from Kuwait. Meanwhile, Cuban churches have come up with a clever decentralized fix. Working with churches in the United States, they are installing point-of-access water purification systems with filters and ultraviolet lights that enable them to simply turn on a spigot and provide clean water free of charge to the neighborhood.

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“Ordinary people can’t afford bottled water, so they need to boil it before they drink or they put iodine in the water,” said Bruce, who was born in Ghana, West Africa, came to the United States to attend college in Iowa and who has worked for decades as a project manager for construction firms in the Twin Cities.

“Some friends have asked me, ‘You could be doing this for Ghana, why are you doing this for Cuba?’ I tell them, Cuba has done so much for Ghana. Cuba sent doctors to Ghana. And during the Ebola outbreak, Cuba was the first country to send doctors to Sierra Leone and Liberia. So, with me it’s a way of giving back to a people who have given so much but who don’t have much.”

 

The group’s visit comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s historic visit when he declared, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” A week ago, the Rolling Stones rocked Havana. The Minnesotans’ quiet entrance won’t get that kind of  attention, but it will change lives.

“Initially for me there was a sincere sense of curiosity about this closed mysterious place,” said the Rev. Susan Moss of St. Paul, former vicar of the Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregation, La Mision El Santo Niño Jesus in St. Paul. Moss prepared this week for her sixth visit to the island. “Here was this opportunity to visit legally and meet people and learn about their culture. Then once you’re there, you make friends. And then you go back because you want to see your friends.”

On a trip to Cuba three years ago, Bruce, Moss and a handful of others went on a tour with the Bishop of Havana, the Rt. Rev. Giselda Delgado del Carpio, who also happens to be the first woman Episcopal bishop in Latin America.

“She said we really need clean water,” said Moss. “The water system and pipes are just degenerating and the water is brown and people get sick. So, we took her invitation and said we’ll see what we can do.’’

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“That’s where Hector comes in,” added Moss. “Hector is a genius.”

Waterborne illness

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s economic slide further deteriorated the communist country’s aging water system. Water is not always treated because there are shortages of chlorine, filters, pumps and other spare parts. Cracked pipes allow pathogens to infiltrate the supply. Some areas have gone without water for days and people cope by storing water in rooftop and underground tanks, which allows bacteria to incubate.

The United States’ trade embargo also cramps Cuba’s ability to purchase parts. As a result, waterborne illness is not uncommon, including diarrhea and more serious gastrointestinal diseases.

The Minnesota Episcopalians are not the only ones responding to the problem. Christ Episcopal Church in Bronxville, N.Y., and several Episcopal churches in New Hampshire have installed systems. The most active group is Living Waters for the World, a Presbyterian ministry south of Nashville, Tenn. At least 35 Living Water systems have been installed in Cuba since 2009, said the group’s Cuba coordinator, Ed Cunnington, a retired businessman from Orono and member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Westminister members will install their fifth system in June, in a Seventh-day Adventist church in Havana.

“When we installed the system in an orphanage, the director said at the time that he was going to the clinic to get medication for the children two to three times a week for diarrhea, dysentery and other gastrointestinal issues,” Cunnington said. “I went back 11 months later and he said that in that 11-month period, he had not been to get medication one time for the kids.”

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Bruce, who attends Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Paul, modeled his system on one installed by the Bronxville church.

“I took what they had and refined it,” said Bruce. He was trained as an architect and took pride in creating a neat grid of pipes and filters that would mount on a three-by-six-foot stained wood backboard.

“It’s a very simple system,” he explained. Water comes from a tank on the top of the church building, flows through two filters and then through a stainless steel canister containing an ultraviolet lamp that disables bacteria. The UV light is manufactured by the Canadian company Viqua. Bruce received filters donated by 3M and purchased the rest of the supplies from Home Depot.

Trip last year

In March 2015, Bruce installed the system in Iglesia San Lucas, an Episcopal church in Santiago de Cuba. He worked with Cuban seminarian Noel Josué Rodríguez Santos, who was described by the Minnesotans as a jack-of-all-trades who grew grapes on the church roof and made communion wine.

“The thing that struck me was people are incredibly generous and open, while living in very austere conditions,” said Susan Hartwig of Chanhassen, who returned for the third time to Cuba this week, along with her teenage daughter.

“When we sat down in this room for dinner, it was like ‘Oh my god, we can all drink the same water,’” recalled Moss. “It was sort of religious for us, like having communion. Look! We can all pour water out of the same pitcher and we can all drink the same water. And none of the Americans got sick.”

Care packages

Over the past year, the Minnesotans have kept in sporadic touch with their Cuban friends via Facebook, email and texts on old cellphones that the group left behind.

The days before leaving the U.S. were filled with last-minute errands. They packed items the Cubans had requested, including adult diapers and canes for the elderly and crayons for the kids. Several west metro Rotary clubs donated money for water-purification supplies.

“Last year we installed only one system in a week, and this year we’re installing two, so it will be a tighter schedule,” said Bruce, whose employer, Thor Construction will pay his salary during his week in Cuba.

“I don’t say we’re going to install for the Cubans,” he said. “I say we’re installing with them.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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