not so much an indictment as a faithful nudge

LAST WEEK, a hundred or so people from Detroit to Flint rallied on the lawn of City Hall in Flint, many of them walking from Detroit to Flint, calling for safe and affordable water. Water. Not chocolate. Or cars. Or a theme park. Or even better policing or pothole-free roads or public transportation or housing. Water. Water. The thing that keeps us alive, even when we aren’t sure what life is about or where food and the rest will come from. Water. In a state surrounded by Great Lakes, people were rallying for access to safe and affordable water. Because people are sick from water and sick from lack of water, and lives are in upheaval and families are threatened and children are removed and houses are lost because of water shut-offs.

Disclosure: my own water, with no telltale smell or taste or discoloration, has been shown in tests to have lead content twice what the EPA calls an “actionable level,” the level where something needs to be done right now. But mine is low, relatively speaking. People all around me here in Flint are testing even higher. Some are testing at “hazardous waste” levels. We are drinking poisoned water. In Flint. With water bills among the highest in the nation (hundreds of dollars each month for a medium-sized family), we are being poisoned. Ever since our city leadership switched us from Detroit-based Lake Huron water to Flint-based river water, and started treating water locally, our water has failed test after test after test. City leaders say it is safe. But they don’t drink it.

In Detroit, the issue is affordability, yet another attempt to balance the budget by digging in poor peoples’ pockets, and “gentrification by water shut off.” City management is shutting off homes in poor communities with delinquent accounts (but not the commercial non-payers, reports of which have included the State of Michigan, the major sports arenas, and a golf course), then banks are foreclosing because the water bills are attached to tax bills as liens on homes. Thousands of families being shut off from water. Families choosing between rent and groceries and water bills that are extreme.

In Highland Park, a Detroit-area city-suburb, water shut-offs are the result of a problematic billing system. Residents are getting bills for thousands of dollars, then having their service cancelled because they cannot pay.

So, the rally began as a “justice walk” from Detroit, picked up steam in Flint, then moved by bus to Lansing, the capital, in an effort to meet with the governor. To present petitions and tell the stories and beg the governor to do something.

Not that we expected he would. It’s worth noting that Flint, Detroit and Highland Park all have in common this: they have recently been living under Emergency Managers, appointed by the governor, and accountable to no one, to replace all the elected leadership of the cities. A law, passed by referendum, then repealed by voters, then re-enacted by the legislature, allows the governor to do this. He has exercised this power in several cities, mostly the black ones. Flint, Highland Park and Detroit are all majority-black cities.

A group of several dozen citizens traveled to Lansing and was turned away.

THIS WEEK, 30,000 or so youth (and adult leaders) from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America descended on Detroit for the ELCA triennial national youth gathering. They’re worshipping at Ford Field, turning downtown into something like Disneyland according to at least one writer, and “proclaiming justice” throughout the city by acts of service. The early reports and facebook posts are showing a lot of trash-collecting. My teenaged nephew is among the gathered, and I am certain that these well-meaning young Christians want deeply to make a difference. They want to change the world. I applaud them.

But I would like to say that almost no one in Detroit is dying from trash in their yards or trash in the street.

The ELCA knows about the water stuff; even reported on Detroit’s water shut-offs last April. This gathering is said to include an “ELCA World Hunger’s Walk for Water… designed to simulate the experience of collecting water miles away from home, while raising questions about access to water here in the United States, too.”

But why simulate? I wonder: instead of a workshop about water, how might Mayor Duggin or Governor Snyder respond if 30,000 people of faith gathered with local activists on the lawn of city hall or the steps of the capitol and simply said “we’re not leaving until you meet with these water advocates and hear them out.”

Or maybe “we’re here to bring you a glass of fresh, cold Flint tap water.”

Or something like that.

I applaud the youth and their hearts hungry for something. But someone needs to teach them the difference between kindness (which Micah said we should love) and justice (which Micah said we should do). The church ought to be providing teaching moments — opportunities for the controversial, political, difficult, faithful work of challenging a system and making a real difference.

Someone has pointed out that this gathering will make a $30-million economic impact on Detroit. Be assured, the people without water will never see a dime.

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About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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