Paul Darilek

“I Hope we Just Truly Embrace Everything Right Here in the Middle of God’s Creation with Proper Wonder, Awe, Love, and Care”


Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

Editor’s Note:  Paul continues to inspire thousands of people of all ages who realize what a difference clean water makes in the lives of marginalized communities that don’t have it.  Every year when my partner, Don, and I visit El Salvador, we encounter energetic delegations of all ages spending a week drilling wells for Living Waters.  These encounters provide Don with opportunities to share his fond and somewhat nostalgic and proudly paternalistic memories and experiences with a much younger Paul, who as a struggling, young man searched for ways to help the Salvadorans he had come to love.

Paul’s tireless, creative work on the staff of Living Waters International blossomed, providing him with opportunities to be part of a “great senior leadership team that expanded in 23 countries and increased our annual revenue five-fold during an economic recession.”  Serving in the role of Senior Director of Communications for that organization after he and his family returned to the U.S. in August, 2005, his responsibilities ranged from managing “an incredibly talented team of creatives: writers, designers, videographers, and digital wizards.”   Traveling worldwide to gather stories to share with supporters, Paul learned “about fund-raising and making beautiful things happen online, in print, and live events; we had a blast.”


I sold my 1973 Harley Davidson Sportster and bought a bus ticket and headed south.  I had recently graduated from college and wanted to set out for an adventure before settling into a “real job.” My degree was in English literature, so I imagined I would some day be a schoolteacher.  I was unexcited about that prospect though I thought it to be a noble profession. I settled on a year of missionary service in the interim.  We were charged with raising our own support.  I wasn’t a successful fundraiser and for that reason had no choice other than to live on $3,500 for my first year.  I didn’t know if whether or not that could be done, but didn’t have much of a choice.  I took Spanish lessons and sought out people with war stories to listen to.  The Reagan-era wars in Central America had played in the backdrop of my childhood.

Hearing the stories of actual people painted a different picture than what I had gathered from the news growing up. What was referred to in the news as factions of the “extreme right” and “extreme left” in actual practice looked a lot more like “the government” and “poor people.”  The killing my government had been funding was far more indiscriminate than I had ever imagined.  It wasn’t long before my best friends were people whose lives had been shattered by this 12-year civil war.

Sister Cathy, a thin, frail Catholic nun was especially inspiring to me.  She had lived in the small Salvadoran town of Arcatao during the war because her presence protected peoples’ lives.  The Salvadoran government knew that if they killed a little American nun by bombing the town where she lived it would be bad PR.  She was a human shield for people under brutal attack.  She was “good news” among the poor every single day.  She chose to be that at great personal risk.  I had read about things like that in the Acts of the Apostles.

Another friend, John, used to illegally smuggle war refugees across the border into the US to save their lives.  He would raise the money to fly them to their families or to churches that gave them sanctuary.  He had done time for it in Mexico.  People in the jail thought he was a priest.  Later, he was sent to war and yet continued to do so out of his conviction and compassion for his mankind.  These two persons taught me what it means to give yourself to others.  I wanted to be a part of that.  I ended up walking in the shoes of the poor and saying ‘your life is my life.’  I joined the people of Tierra Nueva, the poorest place I had ever seen.  These people had been risking their lives for years to get a plot of land to farm.  It was awesome. Not a brick, or a board, or a store, or building existed in this place.  I lived in a hammock, reading the Bible with them, peeing blood, getting really sick, going to the hospital, and thinking, dude, I’m rich!  I got to go to the hospital.

I, like everyone who lived in El Salvador became influenced and affected by the martyred bishop Oscar Romero.  Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi were other heroes of mine.  Perhaps more than anything watching the love of ordinary mothers  in the context of the war in El Salvador was a discipleship.  I have a number of contemporary scholars as well as friends around me who also influence my thinking in the Christian movement.

The first two persons I just described would have been very uncomfortable in the type of church I grew up in from the time I was born on August 24, 1970, which was filled in piety and learned Christian doctrine of obedience and consequence of heaven and hell.  I am reflecting on my Catholic upbringing of church every Sunday, where I attended weddings, funerals, and “Holy Days of Obligation,” in services in which I was bored zoning OUT the Old Testament which I thought was some of the craziest stuff I’d ever heard and later seen as I read it.  It was filled with stories about God who seemed to hate the Egyptians, and didn’t seem to think much of women.  I thought about all that time I spent challenging the nuns about the literal, bizarre Hebrew laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus (eg. The sin offering for touching a lizard by accident; and laws against sitting by a menstruating woman.)  I remembered the response from my teacher when I asked about the doctrine of transubstantiation: “Look, Paul, people a lot smarter than us have already thought about this.” I did have first-rate education from the nuns, some of whom were immigrants from Central America.  But, the big Irish priest could not hold my attention and he blew me off showing up for my confirmation with his whiskey breath.  I attended church for purposes of parental harmony, but for many years after didn’t care whether I attended or not.

Yet, I figured the Bible was supposedly the word of God, so I would attempt to go it alone without spiritual mentoring.  In my twenties I disciplined myself to read the Bible by spreading the pages out over the course of the calendar.

The one part of my obligatory traditional church upbringing that I did tune INTO from childhood on was Jesus in the gospel lessons.  Jesus remained intriguing and alluring to me from day one even if religion and churchiness did not.  Even when I could shut out other parts of my early Christian experiences as irrelevant, Jesus still stood out there as a beacon.

In El Salvador, those Jesus stories came alive for me and began to make sense.  Suddenly things were starting to feel more like the Bible, and like Jesus.  For Him, faith always looked like trust, and never like having the right beliefs.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all the people Jesus sees faith in have the wrong beliefs:  the Samaritan woman, the SyroPhonecian – pagan – woman, the pagan Roman Centurion’s servant; or they don’t practice their religion right, like the woman with the issuance of blood, disallowed from the temple by the Hebrew Bible, but who had faith – trust – in Jesus.

I am considered a gifted communicator by some, so it is a privilege when I get to use this gift of the Holy Spirit to serve others.  I seem to have a knack for making sense of Jesus to people who aren’t buying the whole Christian thing. Often the best witness to the random non-believer is just a listening, empathizing ear.  People have not always had great experiences with other Christians, so feeling understood about that is a much better first step than a religion lesson.  It is difficult being associated with other Christians – -ones I love and care about – – who portray an image of Jesus and Christian life that’s way off the mark, bigoted, unconvincing, or contrary to what Jesus is about.  It’s frustrating when non-Christians get it, but are repelled from the Body of Christ by some of its members.  Even my shortcomings are sometimes gifts because they make it easy for me to not judge others which is a blessing.  I really feel my whole life has been a string of enormous blessings that I don’t deserve.  It’s very easy to imagine having become any sort of scoundrel under other circumstances. My hope is that I continue to grow into someone whose simple being brings peace and love and kindness to people around me.  Sometimes I even feel like I could be devolving in that aspect of my faith, so, still lots to learn about how to be.

I find the spiritual practice of Buddhist Vipassana meditation has brought me closer to Jesus’ indwelling than any from my own traditions.  S.N. Goenka has been a big influence, in an entirely non-religious, non-conceptual way.  It involves quiet attentive meditation to sensations which for me has facilitated an experience of an awareness of the Holy Spirit.  And yes, I find I can apply those practices to my Christian beliefs and values.

I feel the Holy Spirit catapulting into my life in many directions, from my life’s commitment in terms of livelihood to my marriage to some future directions I am considering.

From the time I made the decision to sell my earthly goods – the motorcycle—for a bus ticket to El Salvador, the Spirit has led me to live among the poorest community in El Salvador where I experienced all kinds of illness from not having water.  This led to my livelihood of drilling water wells and providing clean drinking water in Jesus’ name.  Initially, I founded a Salvadoran organization called Asociacion Agua Viva. Then Living Water International trained me to drill wells and I was free to hire from the local workforce which included gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics.  Over time I re-formed the team from recommendations of church members.  By the end of this year we will have drilled 300 water wells at schools, churches, clinics, orphanages, and other community properties.  We have installed more than 3,000 bio-sand water filters in individual people’s homes.  Together they serve an estimated 100,00 persons. When people of El Salvador ask, “What does it feel like to have been a blessing to a whole country?” I am caught off guard.  Though we have drilled water wells that have transformed hundreds of communities and thousands of families through other than potential life-and death clean water interventions, it’s all along felt like I’m just doing what anyone who is not a monster would’ve done in my circumstances.

After a number of years we integrated Agua Viva into Living Water International (LWI) with whom we always worked in partnership.  When we started Agua Viva, LWI was a small NGO drilling wells in Kenya and India, with a medical missionary couple in Honduras.  I went on staff with LWI, and we have grown into an organization that carries out 1,500 water projects a year in 24 countries.

One of my current challenges is feeling that because my livelihood is so unquestionably God-honoring, I’ve found it easy to trick myself into feeling like that is the life of faith.  It’s a sort of missional trap where it feels right to be focused on my God-projects, rather than being focused on what God is saying to me right now.  I too easily fall rest on my laurels.  This may be a dynamic pastors get caught in also.

Falling in love with my wife, Umber, felt as much like God speaking to us as anything. There’s never been anything clearer than that I needed to trust that God was saying,

“Here’s the one I picked out for you” which was the feeling I had of this lovely Muslim-born woman. It has been a fascinating ride ever since.


Paul’s family named by age: Paul, Umber, Ashi, & Hugh Zakir

Paul’s family named by age:  Paul, Umber, Ashi, & Hugh Zakir

Personally, the complexities of being a father, husband, home mortgage payer and everything else have made listening to God’s call a tougher game.  When it was just me if God said “go,” I’d just put on a backpack and go.  But there are other nudgings of the Spirit I have a harder time following now from within these deep dark corners of suburbia.  I would like to spend more time with my young children, daughter, Ashi, and son, Hugh.  I dream of a work-life that allows more time and space for meditation, exercise, prayer, reading, and writing. When I’m honest with myself, the Holy Spirit is nudging me toward exploring gifts that feel more selfish like writing which can be a real ministry.  When my demanding work and family lives afford me the energy, I am working on some titles. Watch for something called The Surface of the Deep and maybe about 2016 The Missionary Position, Bulletproof Jesus, The Eternal Dance of the Universe and Left Behind by Idiots for Dummies.

Faith and life are these journeys where you get to where you are going and find out you were already there and just not seeing it.  My faith affects my children, but then again, their way of being in the world informs my faith, because they too are already there.  If everyone were as loving as my daughter, this would all be one big Garden of Eden where we would all eat Swedish (“Sweetish”) Pancakes at every meal.


Ashi runs with dad

Ashi runs with dad

I’ve grown to be more humble and patient.  I assume I probably have lots of planks in my eye that I can’t see.  I’ve grown a lot in a feeling that my faith has deepened, but decreasingly able to articulate what that deeper faith is in.  I’m become more convinced that change comes from within, that faith really is, as we knew all along, internal and personal.  Without that internal change, our actions cannot change. I’ve lost confidence that learning the right beliefs and making ourselves do the right thing by force of will could ever get us anywhere.  We’re to become the tree that can’t help but make fruit.  When I was younger, it was sufficient to be a fruit-maker.

It is exciting to see the church in the midst of a transformation.  People everywhere are re-thinking everything and I believe that it’s all in order.  In the big picture I see the Spirit guiding all our honest and faithful endeavors and unlike many, feel no sense of alarm that certain congregations dwindle and ways of thinking are perceived to be lost.  I’d love to see us as Christians have more confidence in our story and in Jesus Christ opening ourselves to learning from other traditions and in the process enriching ourselves and others.


Paul & Ashi

Paul & Ashi

I’d like to see non-conceptual contemplative traditions become more important to us.  I’d like to see us stop judging the rightness of our doctrine and wrongness of variants and wrap our hearts around the whole big story from Eden to all things new through Jesus.  All the hope we need is in the Bible from the exiled people under the worst possible conditions in the desert to seeing God’s future bursting into our present all led by a little child, old people leaping for joy and heaven and earth becoming one right here.

I hope those kinds of persons who have those visions find more voice and we will live like we know where we are going.  I hope that the church can leave behind our kind of hell-avoidance theology altogether, forget about our escape plan to heaven and just truly embrace everything right here in the middle of God’s creation with proper wonder, awe, love and care.  People will be attracted to that, and when we all start to dream together, that dream begins to look like God’s.

Editor’s Note:  Throughout all of Paul’s Living Waters work, he felt a strong tug to write his own novel.  He would rise at 4 AM to write, do his Living Waters work throughout the day, and return late at night to write again.  After re-writing his novel four times in this fragmented manner, he realized he needed to devote himself fully to this vision driving him.  Paul resigned from Living Waters in August of 2014 to pursue his full-time writing.  His goal is to finish his novel in late summer of 2016.  “It’s exciting, and in an interesting way I feel like I’m doing what I’m here on earth to do.  I feel like it’s the most important work of my life.  I’m working as hard as I ever have in my life, and I get to spend a lot more time with my kids while supporting my wife as she goes after her dreams, too.”

 Living Waters continues to thrive in El Salvador and throughout the world by providing clean water sources as well as reducing water-borne diseases among villages in underdeveloped countries.

If you or a service group you are part of (eg. Rotary Club) wish to be involved in an actual well-drilling project in El Salvador, Paul welcomes the physical labor of willing volunteers  For more information on this opportunity, contact Living Water International at:



“My Hope Is That I Continue to Grow Into Someone Whose Simple Being Brings Peace and Love and Kindness to People Around Me” – Paul Darilek


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.