Small steps toward solution in Flint

Eight United Methodist churches in the Flint are set up as Water Resource Centers, including Lincoln Park UMC shown here. Such generosity is crucial but there are concerns that require long-haul advocacy. ~photo courtesy Crossroads District/Peter Plum

REV. PAUL PEREZ
Detroit Conference staff

I am always encouraged by the way people and communities can respond to a crisis.

Rev. Paul Perez

Rev. Paul Perez

As the media has brought the Flint Water Crisis to the forefront, many have been generous in their donations of water, money, and time. This generosity is crucial in responding to the immediate need for clean water in Flint.

However, I am concerned about what happens when the cameras leave, when donor fatigue sets in, and when national attention shifts to another crisis. When that moment inevitability comes our generosity must also include advocacy for comprehensive long- term solutions.

As United Methodists our social teaching, as found in the Social Principles and Book of Resolutions, helps us understand the social justice issues related to the Flint Water Crisis and calls us to join in the long-term response that must be developed.

Water is a Human Right

Fundamentally the Flint Water Crisis is about access to clean water and all the factors that assure that accessibility in our communities. For those of us who are accustomed to turning on a faucet and having access to clean water without thinking about where the water comes from or how it gets there, the Flint Water Crisis has drawn attention to water sources, water treatment,  water infrastructure, and the privatization and commodification of water.

In Flint the corrosive Flint River water was improperly treated and pumped through aging pipes containing lead. Further, the immediate turn to bottled water as a solution raises important questions about the privatization of water sources and the commodification of water that limits access to water to only those who can afford it.

United Methodist social teaching has something to say about all these issues. In “Protection of Water” United Methodists recognized that in “the Bible, water, in both its physical and spiritual dimensions, is a gift” and believe water “is God’s elemental provision for survival for all God’s children together on this planet.” United Methodists understand water to be a human right and to be among the common goods of air, light, and earth that are to be shared and not monopolized or privatized.

Addressing the factors that resulted in the Flint Water Crisis — pollution of the Flint River, Flint’s aging water infrastructure, the failure of water and environmental regulatory policies and management systems – is a complex and long-term task. Replacing the infrastructure alone is a project that some estimate will take 15 years and cost at least $1.5 billion. There is no easy or quick answer to ensuring that Flint residents have access to clean water. It will require the vigilance that our United Methodist social teaching calls for to ensure that it is completed in a just and equitable manner.

“What happens when the cameras leave, when donor fatigue sets in, and when national attention shifts to another crisis?”

Good Governance

The Flint Water Crisis represent a failure at all levels of government. It also, I believe, represents a failure of our states “experiment” with Emergency Management. Michigan has one of the most expansive Emergency Manager laws in the nation. It strips the power of elected officials and gives it to Emergency Managers appointed by the Governor. Our United Methodist Social Principle on Basic Freedom and Human Rights states: “The form and the leaders of all governments should be determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens.” I believe that the appointment of Emergency Managers threatens this basic freedom and human right.

Additionally, in 2015 Michigan was rated the worst state in the nation when it comes to laws and practices that promote transparency and accountability according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, two nonprofit organizations that promote government transparency and ethics. This ranking was made before the water crisis made national news. It is shameful.

As a life-long resident of Michigan and as a citizen of the United States of America, this is a powerful reminder of my responsibility to be engaged in the political process and in movements that keep our elected leaders and government officials accountable and focused on the common good.

Children and Poverty

Finally, the most disturbing and tragic dimension of the Flint Water Crisis is the generation of Flint’s children who will live with the effects of lead poisoning the rest of their lives.  Tried and true interventions like preschool, literacy programs, and nutritional programs are needed immediately. A long-term solution to monitor and resource these children for the rest of their lives is desperately required. Flint is already a city under tremendous economic and social pressures where nearly half its children live under the poverty line. It is children from low income households who will bear the true cost of this crisis.

The United Methodist Bishops, at the turn of this century, launched the Bishops Initiative on Children and Poverty. The Initiative was discontinued in 2004, but its vision of the United Methodist Church built around concern and ministry with children in poverty is as timely as ever. The Flint Water Crisis has reconfirmed my deep belief that it is time to renew the vision of the Bishops Initiative. Might not God be calling us in this moment, in the midst of a tragic crisis, to ministries of compassion and justice for the children in Flint and for children who live in poverty in our urban, suburban and rural communities across our State?

What Can We Do?

The Flint Water Crisis is complex, nuanced, and simply overwhelming. The social justice issues I have named are just a few, the list is incomplete, and my reflections come from my perspective as someone who does not live in Flint.

How do we respond? What can we do? To be honest, I am not exactly sure at this moment. But I am committed to listening to the residents of Flint, our Flint United Methodists, and grass community leaders, to be in solidarity with them and to follow their lead in specific advocacy and action to address the crisis.

In the meantime, I think we all might begin to respond in the following:

  1. Respond to the immediate need in Flint by giving to Bishop Keisey’s appeal for Flint. And also take time to discern and respond to the immediate needs and “crises” in your local community.
  2. Stay educated and informed about Flint. But also get educated and informed about your local community. Take time to ask how the immediate needs, the “crises” of your community are related to long-term systemic issues of social justice issues.
  3. Commit to the long haul. I am working with our Detroit Conference to commit to the long-term response in Flint. Where are the places in your community where you need to commit to long term relationship-building and involvement?
  4. Regardless of your political perspective, get involved in the political process. Vote. Be an informed and thoughtful voter. Join a community organization, neighborhood association, or other group that is advocating for the common good.
  5. Keep the children of Flint and children who live in poverty across our state close to your heart. Pray for them privately and publically. Help you congregation build a relationship with a local school, its students and its families.

This is just a start, small steps. But together, I believe we can make a difference.

After all, when the cameras leave, the donations stop, and attention shifts we are the only ones left who can.


~The Rev. Paul Perez is a permanent deacon of The United Methodist Church. He serves as the Director of Mission and Justice Engagement and Leadership Recruitment for The Detroit Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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