21 January 2016: bigger than water

Earlier this week, I shared on facebook an article I thought was really helpful in putting our water issue in a larger context. It was called Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis, and I recommend it. It got shared by one of my former high school teachers, and immediately drew the comment of some folks, one in particular who thinks he knows more and who expressed a certain disdain for the people of Flint. Among other things, he said we should have used our property taxes to keep the infrastructure in good repair, and asked why people hadn’t just followed GM to wherever the jobs went. (Worth noting it’s a common theme in hard times: why didn’t they just move? People asked it a lot after Hurricane Katrina, as well.) 

I’ve only been here two years, but I got a little defensive. Plus, I wasn’t in a mood to let such ignorance go unchallenged. So I responded, based on observations, conversations, and the many things I’ve been reading, including Karen Piper’s book on the global water crisis, The Price of Thirst, and Andrew Highsmith’s recent book about Flint, Demolition Means Progress. Highsmith and Piper are both academics (UC Irvine and Missouri) and their works are based on solid research. 

I wrote this: 

Short answer, as a start: the problems in flint now are the result of a century of racism, corporate self-absorption and political misdealing, private control of public assets, social engineering and exploitation by wealthy individuals, poor tax policy and unjust revenue sharing. When flint (and detroit and the other auto cities) were feeding the state quite well, the state loved them. When they couldn't do that anymore, the state quit loving them and refused to return the favor. 

Folks couldn't just move when jobs left, because their homes suddenly had no resale value, though they had mortgages to pay. This also decimated the property tax base. In many, many cases, folks did follow the jobs, simply abandoning houses they couldn't sell, creating blight that further damaged property values, and adding more work for law enforcement, while decreasing yet again the property tax base. GM and associated industry also left behind more than 1000 acres of industrial brownfield inside the city limits, and a polluted river, neither of which is really helpful for redeveloping/reinventing a city. Then came the housing crisis. State law restricts what flint can assess from folks around us who work, play or do business in the city. Add "austerity" as the foundation of a misguided, unfounded and discredited political agenda, and the whole thing goes to hell. There is a bind here, which is in large part not the fault of the people of flint… None of this, of course, can possibly be considered apart from the political cancer metastasizing in the american psyche that has convinced us that all taxes are bad, all privatization is good, and anything resembling the “common good" is just damned socialism, and probably the fault of black people. 

You can see I was in a mood. 

Flint has made the international news. And if you’ve been reading the reports, you know how much nuance matters, and how often the story is getting told in the “80-90 percent correct” range. It matters to tell the whole story. And I’m telling you this, because I don’t like my own ignorance to go unchallenged either. Earlier, I got an email from Leah in Washington DC, with the Alliance of Baptists. She said she’d listened to my sermon from Sunday, and wanted to know how the Alliance could pray with and for Flint. Here’s what I wrote her in part, after a minor rant about how the news is giving me a headache (and you’ll hear some overlap, no doubt): 

So my prayer is for national and state leaders who value people, who are willing to embrace solutions that cost money and enrich the vast rest of us for a while — and for taxpayers who embrace taxes as a good thing, a way of being community and providing things like roads and water and lights and health. Programs like the WPA — whereby we could employ people and rebuild infrastructure at the same time. My other prayers are that the governor who did this to us will have time in prison to ponder how to be a better neighbor. That democracy will be restored. That the political party of trickle-down, voter suppression, and income inequality will finally change its platform or be unelected. That water will be guaranteed as a human right and no one will be shut off from the means of life. That the church will shift charity to second place, and justice to first priority. That it will realize that generosity is rarely a long-term solution to anything, and begin to cry out for something more systemic and substantive. Meanwhile, it would be nice to see water arriving here in something other than 16 oz bottles, surely to end up in landfills, and generating massive profits for the bottled water industry — itself a pox on society. That probably isn’t what you wanted or expected to hear, but it’s where I am at this moment. thanks for asking. 

The thing is, as Woodside has always known, charity doesn’t solve anything. Woodside has devoted its entire history of mission to changing minds, changing approaches, changing perspective, changing systems. In the name of God. In the Spirit of Jesus. In the interest of a vision of a shared and just world. People need to have fresh clean water now, but we also need to confront a system that let this happen. 

I just thought you’d like to know what I’m telling people. 

But people need clean water, and well-meaning people across the country, Baptists and UCC congregations and others, are calling and emailing Woodside, asking what they can do, how they can help. 

So, here’s what’s happening. 

Annie and I, the Executive Committee, and the Building and Grounds folks are working on plan to install a point-of-entry filter on our building and to replace our ancient drinking fountains with water bottle fill stations. The idea is to invite anyone with a need to come in and fill bottles to take home at no charge. We can provide water and at the same time minimize the volume of plastic we’re disposing. (Someone told me yesterday that by 2050, it is projected there will be as much plastic by volume in the ocean as fish; this is not an inconsequential concern.) 

While we don’t know the total cost yet, we’ve received about $5,000 so far and others are telling us gifts are on the way. If you know folks who want to send gifts, please invite them to make checks payable to Woodside Church, with “water” on the memo line. You can tell them that we promise to be faithful, to them and to the people of Flint. 

Lack of water can be the death of our bodies. Ignorance can just as surely be the death of our society. 

With you on a confounding journey, 

-pastor deb