By John Heurtz Special to The Catholic Key
“And whoever gives to one of these little ones but a cup of cold water to drink because he is a disciple, amen I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42).
Perhaps it’s fitting that the following story starts long ago in a desert; is told in the year of St. Matthew’s Gospel; and reaches its climax on Christmas Eve.
Father Kevin Ikpah — Nigerian by birth, U.S. citizen by choice, Catholic priest by vocation – is currently the chaplain of St. Mary’s Hospital and Manor in Blue Springs. In his 36 years as a priest, he has served in American locations as diverse as Florida, Arizona and Missouri.
Many years ago he served a flock in Gila Bend, Ariz., a desert town where the common, extravagant use of water to keep lawns green disturbed him.
It reminded him of the women he’d seen in his homeland. But Nigerian women didn’t water their lawns. They walked miles every day to fill jerrycans with water just to drink.
One day a Gila Bend parishioner asked for help for her husband’s faith, because he was far from the Sacraments.
But he was also a just man. At his gas station, not everyone who couldn’t pay had to go without.
Father Kevin taught him about St. John’s gospel of charity, and also to “Repent! And be happy!” — words he preaches to this day.
The husband ended his days peacefully in the Church. Before his death, he instructed his children to use his estate to help fund Father Kevin’s pet project — a water well for his village back home in Nigeria.
Perhaps others also knew of the father’s instructions. His son was assaulted and robbed on the way to meet Father Kevin, and died of his wounds in 2000.
But Father Kevin’s dream of a safe, reliable source of drinking water for his countrymen didn’t die. Instead it first started coming alive in 2008, partly through his own tears.
“I was washing my car for 75 cents in Blue Springs,” he recalls. “I could not believe I’m using clean water to wash my car when my people back home had nothing to drink. I cried.”
Shortly thereafter, while saying Mass one day, he was deeply affected by Our Lord’s heartrending words on the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28).
“I cried again,” he says. “I was tense and unhappy all day. I kept praying and praying, asking God to show me what to do.”
A sympathetic soul in the St. Mary’s community asked what was going on — and in 2008 pledged to fund Father Kevin’s trip to Nigeria.
The pledge was redeemed in November 2010. Traveling in faith, Father Kevin Ikpah arrived in Nigeria in early December with one principal goal: to be God’s instrument in bringing a cup of cold water to His little ones.
Before he left, Father Kevin had encouraged formation of a local prayer group to pray continuously for water throughout November and December. He himself separated from his friends to concentrate on prayer and fasting.
“I told them I came there for a mission, not for Christmas,” he says.
The Nigerian government had tried to help the villagers with men, equipment and up-to-the-minute earth science.
It carefully surveyed the area around UMuagha village for likely places to find groundwater and then drilled two wells — one at 400 feet below the surface and the other at 500 feet. The government even built a holding tank for the water.
“The tank’s still there,” Father Kevin says.
Both wells were dry. But the government had made a good effort, and its work was ultimately very useful to Father Kevin — even as he took a different approach.
He chose a point about midway on a line between the two dry holes, set up an altar, and said Mass there for the villagers.
Afterwards, he knelt down on the ground, immediately beneath where the Consecration had taken place. He touched the ground with the crucifix he always wears and prayed from the center of his heart. It was Christmas Eve.
“God,” he said, “help us. The people have no water.”
The government’s drilling rig and crew were still there, and he ordered drilling on the spot where he had prayed.
Something very, very wonderful happened at 150 feet.
“It was a miracle!,” he says. “Clean, clear spring water, flowing day and night! It was delicious, so sweet to drink!”
“I have never seen such jubilation in the people!”
The local Catholic priest blessed the well, but Father Kevin couldn’t rest until the New Year because of the size and enthusiasm of the crowds.
He held meetings every night to tell people not to wash at the spring, and to ask them to bring only one jerrycan at a time for water.
The village has a reliable gas generator to pump the water. Now the problem is getting fuel for it, he said.
But Father Kevin Ikpah’s confident about the well’s future.
“It has changed my life,” he says.
“I believe God guided us.”
Gasoline is about $1.80 per gallon in Nigeria, which is an OPEC nation. But it’s a poor nation by American standards, so your charitable dollars are well spent there. If you’d like to buy some gasoline for the Umuduruaghazie borehole generator in Father Kevin Ikpah’s village in Nigeria, contact him at St. Mary’s Manor at (816) 228-5900.