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Ministry with the Poor & the Flint Water Crisis

Ministry with our neighbors is based on building heathy, long-term relationships as the love of Christ is lived out in daily life. Ministry with the Poor is an opportunity for each of us to find healing that brings us closer to God and each other as well as rebuilding our relationships to our environment and ourselves. In my daily work in our Eastside Flint neighborhood—even in the midst of the water crisis—I have observed how healing is made possible in and through our ministry with and not just to our neighbors.

I became pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in 2010. At one time the focal point of the local community, Asbury UMC suffered significant decline during the period of economic decline that plagued Flint. The local neighborhood transitioned from a quiet, middle-class community to a blighted neighborhood of vacant housing, crime, open drug trade and prostitution, unemployment and poverty. Yet the neighborhood remains hopeful and is home to a large number of children and youth. The road back to vibrancy is a hard one filled with potholes and detours. It is a path that only God can lead us through.

In the beginning of last summer, Asbury first became alerted to water problems in some homes from complaints of neighbors about dirty and bad-tasting water. At the same time the Asbury Family Center was experiencing an increasing number of local youth participating in our activities. So we started stocking cases of water for the youth and their families to have access to bottled water. At this point, the call for bottled water could be satisfied by weekly trips to the local food bank using a minivan.

The situation exploded on September 24 when health professionals from Hurley Hospital announced that they were noticing increased lead levels in children living in Flint. It would take a few weeks for this information to catch media attention outside of our immediate area sufficient to push civic leaders to take action. By October it became more difficult to stock enough water. In December, UMC pastors leading churches in Flint met with Annual Conference staff to plan our response. The message from urban pastors: “We are already overwhelmed with need… Can we get some help coordinating our response?”

Within a few weeks the District Leadership Team approved and hired a part-time emergency response coordinator while at the same time working on ways to raise money. Badly needed financial donations have come from UMCOR, our Conference Churches, other UMC Conferences, as well as individuals.

Asbury has been a visible partner within Flint for the past several years, so it came as no surprise when Mayor Karen Weaver asked if we would be willing to be a local resource center. We already had a banner identifying us as a resource center, but this designation also gave us immediate access to an officer in the Michigan State Police responsible for coordinating resources across multiple sources, including the Red Cross. The next day three police officers were dispatched to help us unload water from the food bank to stock our center, and the following day Red Cross representatives were available after worship to answer questions and to distribute faucet filters.

Asbury and seven other UMC water resource centers receive shipments of bottled water weekly from the Food Bank and on most Saturdays from other cities. Peter Plum, our response coordinator, makes it possible for us to focus on our neighborhoods by scheduling volunteers from other churches when trucks arrive and ensuring that we have an inventory of filters and replacement filters on-hand along with information in English and Spanish. Pete now meets regularly with all of the organizations involved in addressing the water crisis to ensure that our efforts are in harmony with other churches, nonprofits and government agencies.  At this point, our neighbors can get bottled water from nearly every church in our neighborhood including smaller churches that we help supply.

At times we have mixed feelings when recipients thank us for what we do, realizing that we are merely sharing resources that so many others have provided. Nevertheless, we accept their gratitude and we express our own gratitude that in their receiving our day is brighter in the midst of bleakness.

Relationship-based Ministry with the Poor makes injustice very personal. “Ministry with the Poor” matches reality when I hear ownership statements such as our children, our neighborhood and our crisis, and hopeful declarations like our solutions and our future. “Ministry With” becomes "ours" as we grow in solidarity with our neighbors.

In the Flint crisis, we are affected even if the children in our homes did not drink the water. “Ours” becomes real because we’ve come to believe that the children who did drink the water are our children too. We became related when we committed ourselves to doing ministry with rather than ministry to people living on the margins.

Catastrophes like the Flint water crisis disproportionally affect people living in poverty and persons of color. This is more than a water crisis. This is a crisis of faith-in-action, of a mismanaged local economy. Prior to the water crisis, those living in Flint were already in a crisis that began over two decades ago, a result of emphasizing economics over human dignity. The loss of over 80,000 jobs that accompanied the closing of automotive businesses in the mid-1980s left a wake of destruction from which Flint has yet to recover. Flint is located in the heart of Genesee County which already has the worst health outcomes, the shortest life expectancy and the lowest quality of life, health-wise, in our state. The water crisis feels like a "piling on" of struggle that none of us could have imagined possible.

Longer term remediation requires that water supply pipes either made of lead, or where lead solder was used to join pipes together, be removed and replaced. Ministry with our neighbors in the long-term could mean helping to organize, advocate, and agitate for quicker resolution, providing help during construction or volunteering materials and labor.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the United Methodist Church in partnership with other denominations hosted thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly to restore homes damaged by flooding. Similarly, the Flint water crisis is a human disaster. The suffering is very real and our response must be both immediate and long-term. Hope and healing are possible, but we must continue serving through ministry with and not just to our neighbors, if community-driven, long-term solutions are to succeed.

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Rev. Dr. Tommy McDoniel

The Rev. Dr. Tommy McDoniel has been pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church since 2010. Rev. McDoniel received his Master of Divinity from Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry from Ecumenical Theological Seminary.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.