Finding faith, hope and reconciliation in the Flint water crisis
When faced with crisis, it is easy to feel alone like a voice crying out in the wilderness. Congregations in impoverished rural and urban communities are often without the media spotlight to bear the burden that is the responsibility of the whole body of Christ— to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:14–20).
Born and raised in Flint, Mich., I now serve Salem Lutheran Church, the ELCA’s only remaining congregation in Flint. Like many cities across the United States, we’ve suffered the loss of industry and jobs and aging infrastructure. Known as the Vehicle City and birthplace of General Motors, Flint once boasted more than 80,000 automotive jobs which largely created the middle class of America. Today, fewer than 8,000 of these jobs exist. National and international news media coverage of the Flint water crisis has opened the eyes of the world to the realities of a once industrious American city, now with deteriorating neighborhoods hoping for rebirth.
Natural and human-made disasters happen all the time. In worship we pray for the pain and suffering of God’s people around the world and for all of God’s creation. We pray for reconciliation and healing that tends to the wounds that carry deep within them the sign of the cross. We proclaim Christ crucified and risen in ways that give hope in the midst of realities that seem hopeless and void of God altogether.
Though it can be difficult to trust right now—to trust the government, the community officials, even to trust that our water will once again be safe—we know that we can trust in God to provide a path forward even in the most trying times
Flint’s water crisis is a disaster that began not just because of old pipes or contaminated water; it began with the betrayal of a community by those who were elected to represent us.
Michigan has one of the most egregious Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) laws in the country. Under Michigan’s law, EFMs are appointed by the governor to oversee all financial decisions in municipalities that demonstrate high financial risk, despite a state-wide rejection of this policy by ballot vote in 2012. As a result, locally elected officials are rendered powerless. All decisions are made by the EFM with direct oversight by the Governor’s office in consultation with the State Treasury Department.
While under state EFM control, Flint switched from Detroit water (which uses Lake Huron as a water source) to the Flint River—a much more corrosive water source. This move was meant to save money. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to instruct the City of Flint to properly treat the water with optimized corrosion control. As a result, the corrosion of Flint’s pipes leached lead and other contaminants into Flint’s drinking water. This exposure of nearly 100,000 people to lead poisoning is a human-made disaster perhaps better characterized as a political catastrophe.
At all levels, the people of Flint were betrayed by government agencies whose job it was to protect public health. People were dismissed, belittled and discredited for speaking out against social and economic injustice. For nearly two years, residents complained of water discoloration, smell and health issues, yet were repeatedly told by government officials that the drinking water was in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act as regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the MDEQ.
After issuing several boil water advisories for E. Coli, multiple notifications to residents that the city did not meet treatment requirements due to elevated trihalomethanes (TTHM—which is a byproduct from disinfecting the water) and a spike in Legionnaires Disease (which resulted in nine deaths), how could so many people in power neglect the obvious?
Something was terribly wrong with Flint’s water.
An issue of poverty
In 2011, Flint became the fourth city in Michigan brought under Emergency Financial Management. With the addition of Detroit in 2013, nearly half of all African Americans in Michigan now lived in communities with EFMs. The economic motivation to implement an EFM directly correlates with the realities of poverty. I am saddened that the poisoning of an entire population was the trigger that revealed the first human-made disaster to strike Flint—poverty. In a state surrounded by the world’s largest fresh water supply, the Flint water crisis brings to light the stark contrast between wealth and poverty.
As Jackie Pemberton, a Flint resident and member of Our Risen Lord Lutheran Church in Burton, Mich., said, “It’s like camping in your own home. We use bottled water for everything: cooking, cleaning, drinking and bathing.” The water crisis, however, is much more than inconvenience. Flint residents have been paying the highest water and sewer rates in the nation—for water that poisons. Many in Flint have suffered from dry skin and rashes related to the water. The state has maintained that it is safe to bathe children in the water, warning, “Just don’t let them consume it.” Tell that to a three-year-old! Parents have shared with me a tremendous sense of guilt because they gave their children Flint water to drink. Because lead is a neuro-toxin, parents are fearful that their children may have irreversible brain damage, lower IQ’s, learning difficulties or emotional and behavioral issues.
Water distribution centers were created by the state at all five of Flint’s fire stations, which were initially expected to service the entire population. For the first several months supplies were rationed to one case (about 24–40 bottles) of water per family per day. This was simply not enough, but people in power didn’t listen. Families traveled from station to station, hiding water previously received under blankets and in trunks just to get enough water for the day.
Many families in Flint rely on public transportation. Imagine carrying two infants, a diaper bag and stroller on the bus. How will you carry a case of water that weighs more than 15 pounds? How will the elderly and home-bound receive water regularly? How will immigrants who speak Spanish or Arabic be informed about the water crisis and health effects? Addressing the needs of Flint is more difficult because of the effects of poverty. In a society that rewards self-sufficiency, there is little compassion for the poor. The perpetual existence of poverty should stir the conscience of the faithful to question the status quo.
In a city with 40 percent of people living in poverty, Salem Lutheran Church serves one of the most impoverished neighborhoods. We are often trapped between our desire to serve the basic needs of God’s people with boldness in mission and the reality of extremely limited financial resources to carry out that mission.
Believing we never wait for the government to do what we as the people of God are called to do, Salem was quick to become one of the earliest and largest distribution sites for water in the city. Partnering with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, we have been receiving two semi-trucks of water weekly and often add a third semi-truck from donations. Families receive as much water as needed or as much as can be carried. It isn’t unusual for people to bring shopping carts or wagons or to walk a distance home carrying three cases of water. Yet families express thanks and blessing. Mindful of creation, we encourage the recycling of plastic bottles by providing recycling bins at the church. With the support of people across the nation and around the world, we have supplied additional water, water filters and replacement filters for families in need.
Where is our hope?
The disparity between poverty and the privilege of wealth has challenged me as a leader. Feeling the conflict, in faith I cannot stand idle in this disaster. I now care much more deeply about politics and the economic spending of tax dollars. I think Jesus would be flipping over tables in the temple if the church were silent on this humanitarian crisis.
Fluctuating between profound anger and profound sadness, I cling to my faith in God who time and time again promises deliverance. Flint deserves clean, safe water. As overwhelmed as I am by what happened in Flint and more so, how it happened, I am equally overwhelmed by the generosity and compassion of humanity. Every day, I see the young and old faces whose lives have been affected, and I am thankful that the ELCA continues to support those impacted by this tragedy.
Betrayed beyond belief, like many I don’t know what it will take to rebuild trust in the government. But my faith and trust in the church has grown stronger. Flint is not alone. Salem Lutheran Church is not alone. I am not alone. We have the thoughts and prayers of so many around the world as we wrestle to find reconciliation and healing from the tragedy that we endure. Flint will rise from the ashes because although Jesus was crucified, God raised him from the dead. To everyone who is moved by the tragedy in Flint, thank you for being the hands and feet of Christ that tend to the wounds which carry deep within them the sign of the cross.
You are the balm of Gilead that will make Flint whole again.
Rev. Monica M. Villarreal, Pastor Redeveloper of Salem Lutheran Church in Flint is actively involved on many boards in the Flint community. She serves on the ELCA 500th Anniversary of Reformation Observance Team and is the LWF Global Young Reformers steering member for North America.
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