In “a city that helped build America,” as Catholic Charities Of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, puts it, “hope is often in short supply.
“Jobs are scarce—violence, illiteracy, and crime are on the rise. Young people are being raised in a an environment of poverty and despair. Foreclosures and anxiety, joblessness and poverty—all contributors to depression and domestic violence—are destroying families.”
As if these and many more problems were not enough, the city now confronts a water contamination crisis of mind-numbing dimensions. In a classic case of pennywise, pound foolish urban planning, a state-appointed city manager saved a few dollars by switching to the murky Flint River as the city’s main water source. That corrosive water has compromised lead piping all over the city, and residents have for months—cooking, cleaning, eating and bathing—exposed themselves and, more catastrophically, their children to the well-known neuro-toxin. Even low levels of lead exposure can have lifetime developmental and neurological effects on children exposed to it. Compounding the initial error to cease using Lake Huron water has been a failure at all levels of government to understand and respond to the crisis, in spite of repeated efforts among a few individuals in government and health services to bring attention to the unfolding unnatural disaster.
State officials report that all children who drank the city's water since April 2014 have been exposed to lead. In a statement released on Jan. 20, Lansing’s Bishop Earl Boyea, said, “The numbers are heartbreaking… That’s 8,657 children, based on Census data. And children are at greatest risk for health problems from lead poisoning because their smaller bodies, which are still growing, are more susceptible to absorbing and retaining lead.”
Mary Stevenson is director of Catholic Charities' Center for Hope in Flint one of the sites Catholic Charities is using to distribute bottled water in response to the crisis. This latest setback joins the list of challenges her clients have been facing. The Center welcomes about 60,000 people a year for a myriad of services from distributions of food, clothing and household supplies to counseling and job assistance for former inmates.
Frustration with the behavior of city and state leaders is palpable across Flint, she says. The people of Flint have been receiving contradictory information and erroneous assurance for months now.
“It’s been disappointing; it’s been frustrating,” she says. “These are people with children; people trying to put life back together here. It’s been hard in a place where things have been hard for a long time.” What she finds encouraging has been the response of surrounding community members who have turned her office into a veritable warehouse of bottled water in recent days. “We have water coming in from all over the country,” she says. “Someone just put a six-pack of sparkling water on my desk while I’m talking to you,” she adds with a laugh. “People here are grateful for the help….It’s nice to know we are not alone in the struggle.”
Her clients, many of whom walk to the center, have been taking home cases of water at a time. The heavy lifting and the walk in the dead of winter is a major challenge for some. The tap-water crisis has made even the most mundane tasks a challenge, from brushing teeth to cleaning a table. Everyone is learning how to be creatively conservative with drinking water. Stevenson makes sure that mothers going home with baby formula take gallons of water with them to use for their babies. Indeed the most worrisome aspect of the crisis is the still unknown repercussions for the city’s children.
“You can’t tell looking at a child today what impact the water has had or will have on their future,” she says. “It will just crush you thinking about what might happen.”
The “Faith in Flint” campaign was launched by the Diocese of Lansing in May with the promise of reinvigorating a Catholic presence and a sense of hope in the city. The effort couldn’t have come at a more urgent time. As the campaign started, Bishop Boyea urged area Catholics to support it as a diocesan-wide mission, noting, “We don´t have to look across the nation or around the world to see great need.”
Flint’s demographics are indeed gruesome:
Of working-age adults age 16-64, 49 percent did not work at all over the past year; 62 percent of Flint´s children live in poverty, compared to 24 percent of children statewide; 41 percent of Flint residents live in poverty compared with 17 percent of Michigan residents; Nearly 40 percent of residential properties are abandoned.
The city’s latest statistics will no doubt concern levels of lead exposure and lead-mitigation costs.
The Faith in Flint initiative has paid off for Stevenson in providing a ready list of volunteers from surrounding parishes and towns for her to tap into. The response to the campaign has been heartening even before this latest crisis. The folks who have volunteered through the campaign come from all over the Lansing area.
She says, “Many of them never set foot in Flint; they had no idea that the need was so great.” Now, she says, they have established a long-term commitment and connection with the center. What prompted such a terrific response? Stevenson says many of the volunteers have simply told her “because the bishop asked me to.”
In his statement on the crisis, Bishop Boyea writes: “The City of Flint has undergone many trials in recent years. Often, its people have faced the temptation to lose hope, to surrender to despair. The water crisis again presents that temptation, but again the answer must be to find strength in the love of God and the support of men and women of good will.”
He urged “Catholics, and all people of good will, to continue praying for the people of Flint.”
“With prayer and fasting, let us call down the power of God on this city,” he said, beginning a powerful invocation during a difficult time. “We ask the Lord to grant wisdom and courage to civil leaders who are seeking solutions to the water issue. We pray for a season of peace—that crime and violence abate. We ask blessings on police officers, fire fighters and all first responders. We pray that mothers, fathers and educators will guide young people to reach their full potential as children of God. And we ask the Holy Spirit to come down on this city in a powerful way, casting out evil and fear.”
The bishop adds, “Throughout this period, our Catholic Charities have been a steady source of clean water for any who need it. Those efforts will continue, even as we applaud the arrival of outside assistance.” Donations of bottled water are being accepted at the Center for Hope at 517 E. Fifth Avenue in Flint. Water is being distributed there and at St. Luke New Life Center, 3115 Lawndale Ave.