The Common Good
June 2008

Doing the Extraordinary: Jena Nardella

by Jena Nardella | June 2008



Jena Nardella, 26

Executive Director, Blood:Water Mission

Nashville, Tennessee

Blood:Water Mission, started by the band Jars of Clay, works for clean water and against AIDS in Africa.

-How would you describe your job/leadership role (one phrase)?

I am responsible for creating, nurturing and leading all major programs, activities and relationships within Blood:Water Mission's mandate—which is to provide clean water and AIDS support in Africa while encouraging young Americans to care about the world beyond themselves.

-What one or two things most motivated you to get involved?

I learned that a billion people in the world lack access to clean water, and that women and children are the ones who suffer the most from this reality. I think people can be paralyzed by the social injustices of the world and feel the need to shut it out or feel as though there is nothing that they can do to respond to the injustices. I have always been motivated by the truth that ordinary people can do something extraordinary, if it is done with love, humility and large doses of hope.

I believed there was something I could offer to this water and health crisis in Africa. I had no professional training, but I had a load of passion and a willingness to learn quickly on my feet. I got involved because I believed that there was a huge potential to engage young Americans in creatively raising awareness and funds for water and HIV/AIDS support in Africa, and I believed in supporting local organizations in Africa that knew their communities better than we ever could. I saw the synergy between passionate youth in America and compassionate organizations in Africa. Jars of Clay needed someone to help them start Blood:Water Mission and I believed I could do it.

-As you think about your work and/or your participation in the body of Christ, what’s your biggest passion?

My greatest passion is inspiring people to their best selves. It looks different in various scenarios, but I delight when people recognize that there are very important gifts that God has placed uniquely in their experiences and skills that can be used to transform culture, structure, lifestyle, and social conditions. We are not called to be heroes and we're not called to save the world, but God has certainly equipped every individual with the ability to love people better than we do now. I am passionate about seeing Americans and Africans alike realize their unique worth in the world and being equipped to use it accordingly.

-What’s the biggest challenge you see facing young Christians/the church now? In the years to come?

I think Christian culture and American culture are not all that different from one another, and I believe that disillusionment will come when our generation realizes that materialism, comfort and safety are not actually what we're supposed to pursue as followers of Jesus. In fact, it's quite the opposite. We're not very equipped to live lives of simplicity, risk, and challenge with contentment.

-We hear often that young Christians’—particularly evangelicals’—perceptions of Christianity are changing, that their concerns are broadening to encompass more social justice issues. Do you see this happening in your own experience? Or, if you would describe your experience of young Christians differently, how would you describe it?

I became bothered by the problems of the world at an early age, and I began reading and following the works of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ. Before I was ever aware of a need for a savior, Jesus was my social activist hero. He hung out with the types of people I cared about. So my experience has made it hard to ever separate the pursuit of social justice from the pursuit of living like Jesus.

However, for others, I do see this perception of Christianity broadening into social justice, or at least, being re-enlightened for young people. Most people in my generation have grown up believing that a Christian is defined by what he or she doesn't do, like certain behaviors that are considered worldly. What we are beginning to understand is that a Christian is better defined as someone who does certain behaviors that are reflective of love, mercy, justice and compassion. We must take note of all the incredible Christians who challenged the mold by spending their lives working toward social justice, whether it be the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement or women's suffrage.

-What one thing would you most like to tell Christians?

God is author and creator of the world in which we live. He hates injustice and he loves mercy. We are free to live for ourselves, but living for something greater than ourselves brings joy deeper than understanding. We live in a deeply broken world, and it needs your love—whether in your family, neighborhood or halfway across the globe. Just don't miss out.

-How has your family background impacted your vocational journey?

I have parents who nurtured the passions of my heart. I was nine years old when I met a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. My parents recognized the pain I adopted after that encounter; and as a result, they gave me opportunities to interact with the homeless population at a very young age. They let me volunteer at a homeless shelter in Colorado instead of working a job in high school. They saw where my heart wanted to be, and they equipped me to go there. I have received overwhelming encouragement from them because they believed in what a young person could do in the world.

-What’s your biggest challenge personally?

Balancing hope with reality. And staying on the side of hope. After countless visits to African communities in the last four years, I have been on a roller coaster of extreme optimism and utter disillusionment. Poverty cannot be alleviated by charity. Charity cannot just be handouts of leftovers. And leftovers aren't what the world needs.

But even if you give it your all, the challenges that accompany community development, politics, scarce resources, empty leadership and histories of oppression make hope feel weak sometimes. But I celebrate the seemingly small and yet significant changes that come as a result of hard-working African communities and generous Americans. A simple cup of cool water is something that bears greater hope than I could have ever imagined—because it represents so much more. I have seen over 250,000 people work toward access to clean water in their communities as a result of a resilient hope. The structures of poverty and brokenness compel us toward defeat. And I choose hope.

-What gives you hope?

Ha. See previous question.

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