On a church mission trip in 2004, 65-year-old Ramon Billhimer looked out a bus window in Uganda and saw a little girl taking dirty, stagnant water from a muddy ditch. The water was for a garden, Ramon assumed, or maybe livestock. She snapped a picture and offhandedly commented to her translator that the children sure went a long way to get water for their animals.

“Oh, that’s not for animals, Ramon,” the translator replied. “That’s her family’s drinking water.”

Ramon had already noticed, while visiting rural churches, how sick many Ugandan children were. She’d assumed they all had malaria, but soon learned at least half were chronically ill with dysentery and other consequences of drinking dirty water. The sight out the bus window became a turning point in Ramon’s life—the little girl with her jug, a burning bush.

For the rest of her time in Uganda, Ramon cried herself to sleep. A few days after the bus conversation, while visiting a Ugandan hospital, she met a little girl hooked up to IVs and lying quietly in bed. Ramon tried to engage the child and told her she’d come back to visit. A few days later, she made good on her promise, but the girl was gone. She was dead from dysentery.

As Ramon has told the story over the years, she went out into the hallway of the hospital and screamed, “God! Why don’t you do something!”

And she heard a response: Why don’t you?

So she did. She started by explaining to her husband, Bob, why she felt compelled—in the stage of life American society says should be devoted to rest and relaxation—to provide clean water to people nearly 9,000 miles away from their home in Midland, Texas. Then she learned about digging artesian water wells and found a way to pay for them. All this took some time, but over the next 20 years, Ramon and Bob steadily did something.

For the past two decades, through ups and downs, generosity and swindles, rainy and dry seasons, they’ve provided 858 wells in the eastern region of Uganda. Conservative estimates indicate their efforts have given 3.4 million people access to clean water.

And the Billhimers didn’t stop with a few artesian wells. Of their 858 wells, 23 are borehole wells, drilled after they learned people were dying from crocodile attacks while getting water from a river. When famine and drought and pandemic struck, they added food distributions to their repertoire, feeding over 700,000 people since 2020. They’ve created fish farms with the artesian well water run-off. They’ve made medical donations. They’ve even provided an expensive borehole well to a Muslim school—a project that Ramon was quick to say required some extra nudges from God to push her to action.

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Ramon and Bob did all this without a single capital campaign. They have no website, media coverage, nor even an official organization name. Their fundraising efforts are the epitome of low-overhead: Bob has a white, three-ring binder filled with pictures of wells that he printed on his home printer, and when someone wants to sponsor a water well, they contribute to the Billhimers’ church, First Presbyterian in Midland. The funds are sent to a local partner in Uganda, and a few months later, Bob prints pictures of the new well and adds them to his binder.

Everywhere the Billhimers go, they talk about clean water. Bob, now 87, thumbs through the binder, showing pictures to whomever will stop and look. One time, on an international flight, Ramon got up to stretch her legs and struck up a conversation with a man at the back of the plane. Shortly after they landed, he mailed them a check for $10,000—enough for a six-pipe artesian well with an attached fish farm.

Ramon and Bob Billhimer (left center in blue) providing clean water to Uganda.
Image: Courtesy of Amy Bell Charities

Ramon and Bob Billhimer (left center in blue) providing clean water to Uganda.

Ramon and Bob Billhimer drinking clean water in Uganda.
Image: Courtesy of Amy Bell Charities

Ramon and Bob Billhimer drinking clean water in Uganda.

I share this story with you because I want to tell you about Ramon, a near-unknown hero of the faith. But as a writer, I also recognize it as exactly the sort of positive story that elicits a particular response from readers: Finally! Some good news! Why don’t we hear more of things like this? The media’s always so focused on the negative!

Ramon and her wells are the sort of hopeful, beautiful story that pastor and author Patrick Miller was calling for when he accused CT of “liquidating institutional trust” by “building a platform off the sins of Christianity yesterday.” (Of course, CT leadership has a different perspective on the matter, which is worth hearing as well.)

Looking beyond that conversation, it’s evident that media companies—especially outlets unconstrained by theological and ethical commitments like those that shape CT’s coverage and financial decisions—are incentivized to tell a worse story. The New York Times saw its subscriber base grow tenfold after former president Donald Trump was elected, at least partially because there’s a big market for articles dunking on Trump and chronicling his every controversy. The Washington Post saw a similar “Trump bump.” And before he left the network, Fox News paid pundit Tucker Carlson $35 million a year to stoke anger and outrage with his well-practiced scowl. Bad news is big money for Left and Right alike.

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But is the media’s negativity problem that simple? Focusing on the profit factor alone conveniently skips over our own culpability as these outlets’ customers. As writer Derek Thompson put it last month in The Atlantic, “Consumers face a bonanza of news-mediated despondency about quality of life, in part because news outlets are responding to audience negativity bias by telling the worst, most dangerous, and most catastrophic stories about the world” (emphasis mine).

The media tells negative stories because that’s what we’ve signaled we want to hear. Demands for good news may be sincere, but they’re superficial. Our reading, watching, and listening habits reveal a deeper hunger for bad news.

Even with stories that sound positive, we’re jaded, cynically waiting for the gotcha, the turn to some dark revelation. And when there isn’t a negative turn or some shocking disclosure—when the story turns out to simply be good news—many of us habitually dismiss it as insipid, milquetoast, a press release plastering over harsh reality. We’re suspicious, certain we’re not being told the whole story. We dismiss good news as irrelevant or Pollyannaish at best or propaganda at worst.

Christians living in this confusing, contentious, and alarming age must take some time to reflect. Are we force-fed negative stories by a greedy media unwilling to offer anything else? Or does much of the media churn out negative stories because that’s all we as news consumers seem to want? Do we have a longing for good news? A feel for it? As followers of Jesus, are we capable of seeing the good, beautiful, and true in a busted-up world?

In another Atlantic essay exploring how “negativity bias” contributes to the bleak reality of much of our media landscape, Thompson says that “negativity is not, strictly speaking, a news-maker problem; it’s a human problem.” It is a problem to which Christians should be able to respond.

Marinating and ruminating on bad news might be the way of the world, and a very natural human inclination, but it ought not be the way of followers of Jesus. There is a better way, and I think Ramon’s story, in addition to being good news, offers some useful instruction in that narrower path.

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The fallen world is indeed full of bad news, as Ramon saw out her bus window. Our news feeds faithfully fulfill the maxim “If it bleeds, it leads,” offering up endless local and global crises for our consumption. But we’re the ones at the buffet, and we must pay attention to where we pay attention.

Are we doomscrolling and outrage clicking? Are we scanning for proof that our distrust in institutions and “the other side” is justified? Are we conflict entrepreneurs with a taste for seeding chaos, taking a sledgehammer to the foundations beneath our very feet?

As followers of Jesus, we’re to think about what is true, lovely, and admirable (Phil. 4:8). This call to resist the temptation to indulge our darker impulses of discord and self-justification (Luke 10:29–37, Gal. 5:19–21) is undoubtedly difficult, but it is not impractical. We can begin by turning our attention more often to the needs in front of us—out the window of the mission trip bus or our own living room.

That shift in attention will go a long way in making us less hungry for bad news and more eager for good. But, crucially, it does not mean ignoring evil, suffering, and want. Seeing that little girl standing ankle-deep in water dirtied with manure disturbed Ramon’s peace. It was uncomfortable, and it raised for her all sorts of questions about culpability, responsibility, and the goodness of God in a world so sick.

Stories of abuse and betrayal—especially within the church, which purports to live according to a higher standard—should have the same effect on us. The command of Philippians 4:8 is not a simplistic, saccharine suggestion to consume only nice news with happy endings. Neither is it an excuse to shoot the messenger, to rail against journalists who accurately describe our fallen world.

Indeed, thinking about true things often does not mean thinking about nice things. Much of this world ought to disturb us. We must not look away from the truth—or, worse, try to suppress it—for fear of what might come next. We must remember that light has antiseptic qualities, that it can lead to healing, hope, and restoration.

When Moses encountered the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3, the ESV translates his response as, “I will turn aside to see this great sight” (v. 3). In the next verse, when “the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.” As a person who loves words, I’m struck by the repetition. It’s a mouthful, and an awkward one at that. It doesn’t just say that Moses saw the bush. It says that when Moses saw the burning bush, he stopped to really see it. And when God saw that Moses had really stopped to see, he called out to him anew—offering both more of himself and a higher calling for Moses, who would lead his people to freedom.

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Maybe as Moses was wandering on that hillside, tending his flock, he was ruminating on all the bad news about the Hebrews in Egypt. But when he saw the burning bush, he paid attention to where he was paying attention. He wasn’t distracted by other stories. He didn’t turn away in despair or cynically dismiss what he saw as too good to be true. He turned aside to see God’s good news, and he did what God called him to do.

In February, Ramon celebrated her 85th birthday on a transatlantic flight with Bob. They went to Uganda to visit their friends and their wells, to help with food distribution, and to begin to transition their beloved ministry to a new generation of leaders.

While there, Ramon unexpectedly fell ill and died 10 days later in a Ugandan hospital. Those of us who loved her are still reeling from the loss. As we say in West Texas, she went out with her boots on.

As we are grieving and remembering Ramon—her profound love of Jesus, her infectious laughter and bold spirit, the way she moved through the world with such hope and purpose and determination—I’m grateful for what she taught me about how to balance the good news with the bad. She didn’t begin that mission trip 20 years ago as a blank slate. She had a lifetime of practice serving others, and that equipped her to meet bad news with God’s love instead of despair. She offered every part of herself to God as “an instrument of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13), and as I look at my own life, I want the same to be true of me.

I understand the longing for joyous stories of strong relationships and healthy churches, faithful pastors and spiritual breakthroughs. But Ramon’s joyous story tells me that we don’t have to only see good news to be good news. The sight of sin or suffering may be a burning bush: God’s invitation to work alongside him, turning bad news into good.

Carrie McKean is a West Texas–based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Texas Monthly magazine. Find her at carriemckean.com.