Todd Phillips was once a lot like the young adults he found himself pastoring. At age 24, looking for forgiveness and purpose, he had a radical conversion experience. By the time he was 40, he was pastor of a church in Washington, D.C, with 4000 in attendance most Sundays – and an average age of less than 30.
Then, in 2007, a movie changed his life and set in motion a movement. That movie was “Amazing Grace.” It celebrated the life of British politician William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, against great odds, set out to end the slave trade. The movie was released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the British law that did just that, a law Wilberforce had championed for more than 20 years.
“For whatever reason,” Phillips said, “God used that movie to pierce the hearts of these thousands of young adults.” He said they started asking the question: “Can we have our own Wilberforce moment — to end something in their generation. And that’s really how this all started.”
By 2008, in an attempt to answer that question, Phillips founded The Last Well, and it had an audacious goal of reaching the entire nation of Liberia with clean water and the Gospel by the end of 2020. The church picked the west African nation of Liberia because in 2008 it was one of the poorest countries on the planet, had been wracked by 14 years of civil war that had left 300,000 people dead – a massive number in a country with only 4.3-million people.
Perhaps even worse, according to Phillips, was that the rest of the world had all but given up on Liberia. Aid organizations – including many Christian groups — had pulled out. The country itself had been – in Phillips’ words — “left for dead.”
As is the case in most developing country, clean water is a pressing need. Clean water helps control disease. Having local access to water means that children can spend their days learning and playing instead of hauling water long distances for their families. According to Phillips: “You go to a village and say, “Do you need water?” They say, “Of course, water’s life.”
So, Phillips came to the inescapable conclusion: “Water was the greatest physical need that we could use to serve with them.” He said providing water would also “earn the right to share the gospel.”
But how to turn that vision into reality? Phillips and his team developed measurable goals. First, each water source would serve no more than 600 people. Secondly, every person in Liberia must be within a 15-minute walk of water. Thirdly, when a well is dedicated, the gospel is preached by a Liberian pastor or evangelist.
These goals are simple and measureable, but accomplishing them is not easy. The size and scope of these goals meant The Last Well had to raise money for more than 10,000 wells and create partnerships with hundreds if not thousands of local Liberian churches. Building that kind of fundraising and administrative infrastructure took several years.
And just as the ministry was learning to walk so it could eventually run, Liberia was hit by another disaster. An outbreak of the deadly virus Ebola devastated the country in 2014 and 2015, resulting in nearly 5000 deaths and causing panic throughout Liberia and the world. Aid organizations that had slowly started coming back to Liberia in the post-civil war era were abandoning the country again.
But The Last Well’s team persevered, and — despite setbacks – the ambitious goal is coming into view. The group has completed more than 6000 water projects in the past decade, reaching about 1.7-million people, about a third of the country’s population. Of that total, more than 2600 of them in 2017 alone. The Last Well hopes to complete about 2200 project this year. That will leave less than 4000 wells for 2019 and 2020. That number is manageable given the current pace, but it means the group can’t let up.
According to Phillips, “We’ve got a mission to bring the gospel and clean water to an entire nation in West Africa for the first time in human history,” Phillips said. “And God is doing it. We’re averaging of three villages a day, and we think we can reach every man, woman, and child in Liberia with clean water. We’re going to see waterborne illness effectively eradicated in a nation for the first time in history. We’re going to see the gospel preached in every village.
“What we’re doing in Liberia is not just going to transform that nation, but it will be a beachhead for gospel activity in West Africa for decades to come,” Phillips believes.
“We can see the finish line.”