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I assure you that anyone who gives you a drink of water because you belong to me will certainly receive a reward.

Mark 9:41

The facts of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, are well known. Most important, it was caused entirely by human error and prolonged by a subsequent refusal to admit responsibility and take timely action. In April 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager opened a new pipeline to carry water from the Flint River to the city’s inhabitants.

The pipeline had been constructed to reduce the cost of supplying the city’s water from Lake Huron, but the economic advantage came with a serious risk to the community. An important indication that the change was not for the better was General Motors’ decision just six months later to stop using the new city water supply because elevated chlorine levels were corroding engine parts at the GM truck assembly plant in Flint.

Early in 2015, city residents formally complained about discolored water and declining health, even though water rates in Flint were among the highest in the United States. Shortly afterward, in February, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator tested the water at the home of a Flint resident and discovered lead levels seven times the EPA limit.

Resistance to remedy

When the City Council voted to reconnect with Lake Huron, the emergency manager overruled it and refused. The city government’s intransigence was backed up by the state – the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rejected the results of a Virginia Tech investigation that found Flint water unsafe for cooking or drinking.

The hero of the crisis was a young pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha, daughter of Iraqi immigrants, who researched electronic medical records and reported her findings at a news conference on September 24, 2015. She confirmed high lead levels in the blood of Flint’s children, warned Flint residents to stop drinking city water and urged the city to switch back to water from Lake Huron.

Her report was published by the American Journal of Public Health after appropriate peer review, but the MDEQ initially ridiculed and rejected it, accusing its author of manipulating figures and causing “near hysteria.” Eventually, faced with overwhelming evidence and increasing public pressure, the MDEQ backed down, acknowledged the crisis and apologized publicly to Hanna-Atisha.

In December the city’s mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a citywide state of emergency, and in April 2016, criminal charges were filed against four employees of the State of Michigan. In February 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission identified the Flint water crisis as “a case of systemic racism.” (Flint is 54 percent African-American.) A Flint resident told a public hearing, “If this was in a white area, in a rich area, there would have been something done. I mean, let’s get real here. We know the truth.”

The most immediately perceivable result of the crisis was an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease between June 2014 and November 2015, but the long-term effects of lead poisoning will unfold over the lifetimes of those who drank Flint’s toxic water and washed themselves with it.

While the state was conniving in the poisoning of its own citizens, remedies of various sorts were offered. One sort came from Nestle, the Swiss food and beverage company. Nestle announced it would provide 100,000 bottles of water per week to Flint throughout the summer of 2018.

But Nestle’s gesture was like Lady Macbeth’s obsessive handwringing after her husband murdered their king. In 2015, Nestle had been sued in California for using expired permits to pump millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest. In Michigan, Nestle pays just $200 per year to extract what has amounted to billions of dollars’ worth of groundwater from the western part of the state. In 2017 the company petitioned to increase its extraction rate from 150 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute. The company is profiting from the desire for bottled water, which is sold in plastic containers that are made from petrochemicals and are routinely tossed aside in public places – occasionally even in landfills.

Congregation to the rescue

Long before Nestle’s ambiguous offer of help, a congregation in Holland, Michigan, approached Flint residents very differently. In February 2016, Rev. Denise Kingdom-Grier, pastor of Maple Avenue Ministries, heard a Flint resident on the radio describing her inability to bathe because the water was contaminated.

After finding out all she could, Kingdom-Grier took several initiatives. She organized a community day of prayer for Flint, and in March she highlighted Flint’s predicament for her own parishioners on World Water Day. She and her family began a boycott of all Nestle’s products, and she urged her congregation and community to do the same. Eventually she established relations with three community organizations in Flint: a home for the elderly called Heritage Manor, Durant-Tuuri-Mott Community School and Church without Walls.

Kingdom-Grier’s concern at Heritage Manor was not only for its inhabitants, whose water had been made safe, but also for their caretakers, young working mothers who lived in poisoned neighborhoods of Flint, sometimes several bus-rides away, and who worked for low wages. In Holland, two men volunteered their pickup trucks, and Maple Avenue piled the truck beds with one- and two-gallon jugs of spring water for Heritage Manor. Three similar loads of water went to Durant-Tuuri-Mott. Kingdom-Grier paid the pickup drivers for their gas and meals en route, but they donated their time and their vehicles.

Kingdom-Grier quickly discovered that problems with water contributed to other difficulties. She learned that bottled water often contains no fluoride, so she arranged for fluoride-rich toothpaste and chewing gum to be supplied to the Flint residents she contacted. When she discovered that poisoned water was causing irritated skin, she worked out a way to provide lotion and hand sanitizers that included moisturizer.

In March 2018, Maple Avenue Ministries delivered 300 water-testing kits to Heritage Manor for general distribution. The purpose of the kits was to determine lead levels in tap water. For those homes where the level was high, Maple Avenue Ministries supplied shower filters to enable safe bathing in poisoned water. To address problems with scalp and hair damage that were already occurring, the church made donations of large body wipes, moisturizing soap, waterless shampoo and shampoo containing lead-neutralizing charcoal.

People who were used to running water from a tap without thinking about it discovered that it took five 16-ounce bottles of water to prepare a chicken for cooking.

All of these efforts required extensive research and listening to those affected by the crisis and to those who had the expertise to offer advice, supplies and practical assistance. People who were used to running water from a tap without thinking about it discovered that it took five 16-ounce bottles of water to prepare a chicken for cooking. If water in the tap was toxic, the cost of finding a healthful alternative could be prohibitive, so Maple Avenue’s deliveries were a godsend. Kingdom-Grier not only contributed herself to the relief effort but coordinated the donations of others. Nine local congregations and three community organizations contributed to the effort.

On the good earth as God made it, water is necessary for life. A desert is defined by the lack of water, and human survival in a desert depends on oases, rare places where water is available. In the second decade of the 21st century, in the United States of America, no community should suffer from lack of water. The suffering in Flint was not natural; it was caused by human neglect and indifference. By God’s redeeming grace, a caring and busy pastor saw the need of her neighbors, called attention to it, and offered them a drink of water in the Savior’s name.

John D. Cox

John Cox is an elder at Maple Avenue Ministries, the first union church of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.