flint water emergency
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
-Lilla Watson, Australian Aboriginal elder and activist
It's been well over three years, and we still have a water problem. While we continue to work on getting safe and affordable water to all the residents of the city, it is also critical that people of faith have a clear understanding of how this could happen, so that we can agitate, Jesus-style, for better public policies and a greater regard for the common good. Thanks for your invitations to tell our story, and for your commitment to a world that works for us all.
Here is is a run-down of the issues, and how your dollars are helping:
Bottled Water and filters.
You'll remember we asked for donations of money, but requested you not send bottled water. It's not simply that we like money better (and we promise not to blow it on drugs or alcohol). Your shipments of water require space to store, even for a short time, and staff time to load and unload; plus this puts a heavier burden on local activists to distribute them. Bottled water also disproportionately supports Nestle, a company with 70 water brands in the US, which pays little to extract water from public sources, and gets wealthy selling it back to us. And all those bottles are an environmental disaster in and of themselves. Scientists have said they expect the oceans to have equal amounts of plastic and fish by the year 2050 -- not that far off. So, while we have handled hundreds of thousands of single bottles, we are doing what we can to help in other ways.
The filters bring their own challenges.
- The common ones that snap onto faucets don't fit all faucets.
- When they do, they are for cold water only; even running hot water through one time can render the filter ineffective.
- Filters not changed often enough lose their ability to filter.
- Filter cartridges are great places for bacteria to grow -- yet another fear when we've already lost residents to water-related illnesses.
Through your gifts, we have turned Woodside and two other community spaces into "safe water houses," to make free, filtered water available to the community in whatever size containers they would like. We've replaced drinking fountains with filtered ones, and tested them to be sure. This way, we can provide safe water to all the people who use our building: a child development center, another congregation, about a dozen 12-step groups, and multiple other community groups who use our space. Plus neighbors in the hundreds. And folks who access us from the bus stop at our door. And faculty, staff and students at our adjacent community college. That's a lot of people.
This summer, our governor has told us he is shutting down the bottled water distribution centers, because he says the water is safe now. Since his word has not been good and trust here is very low, we expect most residents to continue to seek sources of safe water, making our "safe water houses" more important than ever. Your ongoing gifts will help support the increased water bills at these centers, and perhaps help establish others, as need and opportunity coalesce.
This spring, we learned that water shut-offs were resuming for households with delinquent accounts -- and that the city would begin issuing tax lien notices for accounts more than 6 months past due, 8,000 households initially. Despite having among the highest water costs in the country, and despite water not fit to consume, our people have still been expected to stay current with their water bills. Some have; others have given up, using their water money for the associated costs of the crisis. The city declared a moratorium on the liens (not the shut-offs), but the governor's appointed receivership authority set it aside; then the county leadership announced they wouldn't be enforcing it. You can see why folks here don't know who to trust.
With your gifts, we've provided water bill support to about 220 families, to prevent shut-offs or tax lien foreclosure. It is only a drop in an unfunny, proverbial bucket. In just over 2 weeks, we had approximately $250,000 in requests, from about 400 families.
support for our partners.
- Last fall, we partnered with a local organization, M.A.D.E., to underwrite training for 3 formerly incarcerated men seeking industrial (and lead-abatement) certification; and we arranged plumbing work in a couple of most urgent cases.
- We made work space available to two important community organizations: the Flint Democracy Defense League and the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative (GCHLC), both of whom are working to connect in diverse communities with needed resources.
- With your gifts to UCC Disaster Relief Fund, we were also able to help steer a grant to the GCHLC, so that Spanish-speaking people in the community could have an interpreter for medical visits.
- We designated part of the funds to secure a 2016 summer intern through the UCC/Alliance of Baptists' "summer communities of service." We engaged 3 interns throughout the summer, all in some capacity related to water, because all of Flint is related to water somehow; but one intern work in-house with the GCHLC, getting an education about what is needed and what is at stake.
We will continue to seek out ways to put your gifts to work in remediating this water crisis. Just because the national news shifted its focus elsewhere does not mean the crisis is resolved. Watch this space for news of other ways you are helping here.
The work and the need are ongoing, not just in Flint.
This city has been through some things, not unlike a lot of other cities -- mostly poor, mostly communities of color. In a place that has been through trauma, people remain traumatized, which adds its own challenges to the daily requirement of putting our feet on the floor and doing what we need to do. Woodside Church will continue to do what we can, and we appreciate your ongoing support.
You can continue to send contributions to: Woodside Church (marked "water"), 1509 E Court St, Flint MI 48503. Or contribute by credit card through the link on our home page.
and here are other ways to help
(mostly in your own town):
- Show up for public demonstrations. Your presence adds bulk to the body and volume to the voices of people in cities across the country who are dealing with issues of water, failing infrastructure, failures of democracy, all a function of racial injustice, economic injustice and environmental injustice.
- Read, learn and share information. Form book groups. Print excerpts in newsletters (always credit the author). Discern how you can respond as advocates of the gospel. Below is a starting point. Some are short enough for a Sunday morning forum; others are full-length books, well worth your time.
- Be aware of your own privilege. (I offer this on behalf of people in crisis everywhere.)
- People in Flint and other disaster areas go through a lot, emotionally as well as logistically. We, they, are angry, confused, frustrated, hopeful, exhausted, afraid, worried. Sometimes we simply cannot muster gratitude as well. Please believe that we appreciate being in community, and give us a break when we don't say thanks. (So, let me say thank you now. It matters to be part of a larger church that wants to do the righteous thing, part of a larger community that wants to be in solidarity.)
- Please don't just show up and ask us to re-arrange our days to accommodate you.
- Please email (rather than phone) your willingness to help, and be patient if we don't respond quickly enough.
- Please don't send us things we didn't ask for and can't use. Money is easiest, because it lets us respond to the ever-shifting reality here. Choose a church or charity you trust, and send them as much money as you can.
- Please don't put conditions on your gifts.
- Please don't judge our ideas or contradict our requests. We are in constant communication with folks who know, and we are pretty sure we have a handle on what is needed.
- Consider the difference between justice and charity. Charity is about donations (like water and money), but justice is about building relationships, hearing the voices from the community, and changing the systems that got us into this in the first place. Which leads us to...
- Advocate. There are three demands that all the advocacy/activist groups here have agreed to put front and center. You can help by contacting elected officials and making whatever noise you can make. These are still vital, as none has been addressed.
- We need Flint declared a federal disaster area. This will allow us to access a greater pool of resources than the current "emergency" designation.
- We want Medicare expanded to include every resident of Flint, regardless of age. There is precedent for this (google "Libby, Montana"), and it would certainly help us respond to growing health needs. (If you want a glimpse of pastor deb's personal concerns, listen to her address, "I'm having a hard time focusing," linked below.)
- Tell the governor to honor our democracy! While we have a mayor who is at the table in some ways, we are still governed by an emergency transitional receivership. Not good enough! The Emergency Manager law needs to be repealed, so that cities across Michigan can have their self-governance restored.
- We need new infrastructure. and we need jobs. Tell leaders to hire and train local residents for these long-term projects.
- Vote, and let your elected officials know that you're basing your ballot on a renewed commitment to the Common Good!
choose how to spend your money.
- It's not an overreaction to consider a boycott of Nestle, massively wealthy in part by sucking up public water at little or no cost, and selling it back in small bottles under about 70 brand names. Reclaim public resources for the public!
- Go vegan. And pay attention to how much water is needed to produce and sustain the lifestyle you may enjoy. Read the article below from Stanford Environmental Law Journal about the damage and unsustainability of the animal products industry.
Films to watch for
- For Flint, a new film on the crisis and what folks are doing.
- Poisoned Water: What exactly went wrong in Flint—and what does it mean for the rest of the country? Aired May 31, 2017 on PBS, an episode of NOVA.
- Here's to Flint, a documentary on the water crisis, produced by the ACLU's Curt Guyette and Kate Levy.
task force report
The Flint Water Advisory Task Force was appointed by Gov. Snyder to investigate the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of Flint's water. The task force completed its investigation and published its report in March 2016. Since then, our Attorney General has been investigating and bringing criminal charges against folks -- 15 people so far. The governor has not yet been held accountable, though we remain hopeful.
- Flint water crisis has physical and psychological impact
a couple of the times woodside made the news
- The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos, Karen Piper, 2014.
- Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis, Andrew Highsmith, 2015.
As long as you're in a reading mood
- a leading cause of everything: one industry that is destroying our planet and our ability to thrive on it.
deb's related sermons, essays and editorials
- Intersections of Environmental Justice and Racial Justice: a Guide for Congregational Growth and Action. (Deb's chapter in Trouble the Water: a Christian Resource for the Work of Racial Healing. Mathews, Onwubuariri, Sanders, eds. 2017.) (The whole book is worth your congregation's time.)
- i'm having a hard time focusing. is it the water? (23 April 2016, festival of faiths, Edgewood United Church, East Lansing.)
- tracking the red bug: flint, water and the rest of us. (19 feb 2016, speaking at First Congregational Church, Saginaw, MI)
- bigger than water. 21 jan 2016
- i don't have time to make you feel good. 28 jan 2016
- not so much an indictment as a faithful nudge. 17 july 2015
- the good stuff (a sermon on the wedding at cana, 17 jan 2016, woodside)
- ...and other sermons (in audio)
- responding to crisis in Flint, by the Center for Progressive Renewal,
with Pastor Deb and Rev. Brooks Berndt, UCC Minister for Environmental Justice