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Nov 23, 2016 | EDOT Staff

Austin Engineer Finds Rewards in Southern Malawi

Tom Gebhard is an engineer and member of St. David’s, Austin. He has worked extensively to provide water and sanitation in the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, which he sees as using his education and gifts to fulfill his baptismal promises. Gebhard has served on the vestry of St. David’s under three rectors, has been a member of the Diocesan World Missions committee since 2005 and has served as a delegate to Diocesan Council for a number of years. He is chair of the Water and Sanitation Committee of Warm Heart International, Inc, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a ministry of St. David’s. He has taught civil engineering in college, owned his own engineering firm and was the first executive director of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. Gebhard holds a BS in civil engineering, a master's in environmental health engineering and a Ph.D., all from the University of Texas at Austin. 

CEB: Do you remember who first taught you about faith?

TG: My mom was the product of four generations of Methodist ministers. She was Sunday School Superintendent at First Methodist in Fort Worth, so my sister and I were always there. In college, my inquiry led me first to the Unitarian Church before my fiancée (later my wife) Carole encouraged me to try the Episcopal Church. We were married at All Saints, Austin.

When I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a young professor, we were active in the Episcopal Church and when we moved back to Austin, I was comfortable being pew furniture for more than 18 years of regular Sunday attendance. I truly began to let the liturgy take me away from the secular world. While we lost the incredible prose of the 1928 Prayer Book, the new one provided more understanding to me. It wasn’t until triple bypass surgery in 1996 and selling my consulting firm that I finally became active in St. David’s.

CEB: What lessons did you learn as a child that informed your business career?

TG: My dad was a pharmacist and I worked in his drugstore growing up. There, I learned to listen to people and to respect many different opinions, even if I disagreed with them. I was an Eagle Scout, a Chevalier in DeMolay, and president of the Engineering Council in college. I learned how to work within organizations and make them function.

CEB: What particular gifts did you have that helped you choose an engineering career?

TG: It took two years to decide I wanted to be a civil engineer after being rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy because of my eyesight. It was a promise of doing projects that people needed that intrigued me about civil engineering, and because of summer work I’d done, I began to focus on water resource engineering.

CEB: How did you first become involved in Africa? Water wells?

TG: The relationship between the Diocese of Malawi and the Diocese of Texas goes back to the 1960s. When the first companion relationship expired in the 1980s, the Malawian bishop asked the bishop of the Diocese of Texas to accept a bright student for seminary, James Tengatenga, who formed lasting relationships at St. David’s while he studied at Seminary of the Southwest. He later became bishop of Southern Malawi. In 2005, Bishop Tengatenga extended an invitation for a pilgrimage. While I resisted at first, I felt God was telling me to go. In the rural village of Mindanti, I found 15 people lined up at a borehole to get fresh water. Two villages and 1200 people depended on this one water source and some women went at 3 a.m. to avoid the long lines. (Throughout most of the world a well is hand dug—just as in the first century. When the hole is drilled, it’s called a borehole.) An additional four-foot deep hole was left open and became polluted by animals who used it at night. Many children became sick from waterborne disease. Clearly, the solution was to provide a new borehole.

St. David’s formed Warm Heart International Inc. to manage the gifts made to pay for it additional borehole. We learned it could serve 250 people, but a borehole with an overhead tank and a windmill or solar pump could serve 1200. Additionally, the Diocese of Southern Malawi had a donor for a maternity clinic in Mindanti and needed freshwater. Warm Heart International and St. David’s raised the needed funds and the installation was completed in 2007.

CEB: What does it mean to the people you have worked with in Africa to have clean water?

TG: The water from the new borehole was too salty to be drinkable, which was a major disappointment, but it helped to reduce the lines at the fresh-water borehole because villagers were using the salty water for cleaning, washing and bathing. They could get the salty water easily by turning a spigot instead of using the hand pump. It was surprising that everything doesn’t have to be perfect to help people.

Getting water from boreholes is an experience in community. It’s women’s work to get the water for households. If lines are short, women take time to visit and gossip. When lines are long, most women send their daughters to stand in line for their daily water needs, and so their daughters miss school. Whenever long lines exist at a borehole, a woman’s home life is disrupted. Having adequate water for a community improves life for everyone.

Warm Heart has placed six boreholes at churches, a secondary school and a seminary. One church has a borehole about 40 feet from the front door. What had been a lonely place has become a community center, as people gather to get water, to wash clothing and to visit. By having a borehole near the church, it also enables the rector to monitor the operations and report malfunctions to the diocesan office for repair. It just seems appropriate for a church to offer water to the community.

CEB: In what ways has your ministry in Southern Malawi expanded?

TG: In addition to working with boreholes, I have helped to coordinate Warm Heart and World Mission activities for feeding orphans, elderly and AIDS victims a literacy program; computers for a diocesan-owned secondary school; and a former micro-loan program. I also coordinate other activities with the bishop, the diocesan administrator, the development board.

CEB: What challenges have you experienced in doing ministry in developing countries?

TG: In developing countries, it is not unusual to see projects stop and start depending upon availability of money.  Bricks for the foundation of a new church were begun 10 years ago. Five years ago, the walls were built. Now money is being sought for the roof. The new maternity clinic for Mindanti has been built the same way, and is due to open next year.

My biggest challenge is that warranties on quality of work are often neglected by contractors and unenforced by owners.  Some issues with hand pumps in our last set of boreholes have not been corrected – but we are expecting replacements.  And to ensure proper management, we recommend a development board to oversee projects, through a projects manager. Money is not sent until contracts and budgets are completed. While this is slow, there has not been any money mismanagement and with patience and persistence, the projects funded by Warm Heart International and the World Mission Board of the Diocese of Texas will continue to successfully transform lives in S. Malawi.

CEB: What stands out to you from your experience in Southern Malawi?

TG: I’ve had 16 trips in 11 years. There is a great sense of fulfillment to see orphaned kids fed and schooled, students using computers, mothers getting water from wells. Our fellow pilgrims have visited Texas and have become longtime friends. On my 78th birthday I was in Malawi and was presented with a certificate for compassionate ministry by the Bishop Alinafe one Sunday morning at church. They emphasized my age and I was told that they had no members who were my age nor had they ever known anyone my age. I’m still stunned by that idea. I have greater appreciation for my health, experience and for the society in which we live. And I’m sad for their situation. 

I met the former president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, at a reception in Austin, and she said: “Thank you for coming to Malawi, not to tell us how to change our lives but to partner with us to change our situation.”  That’s an unforgettable summary statement of the work of St. David’s, Warm Heart International, and the Diocese of Texas in Southern Malawi.

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