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As frustration mounts in Flint water crisis, Presbyterians respond

Residents have ‘a feeling that things were intentional, that we were lied to’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – As the poisoned water crisis continues in Flint, Michigan frustration mounts. Yet one Presbyterian Pastor says she has never felt more cared for which gives her strength to minister to those in her congregation who are still without safe and clean running water.

The Rev. Desiree Lawson, pastor of a multi-cultural congregation outside of Flint proper, says about 35 members in her congregation live in Flint proper, in predominately African-American or poor white neighborhoods.

In 2014, saying it would save the city money, Flint officials switched their water supply from Lake Huron to the murky waters of the Flint River. By early 2015 residents were sounding alarm bells about health concerns. But it wasn’t until January of 2016 that state of emergency was declared because of the lead content in Flint’s water supply.

Lawson says there’s a lot of anger in Flint, that residents feel they’ve been lied to, and that this crisis could have been avoided. Ever since General Motors left in 1988, taking 30,000 jobs with it, the city’s tax base and infrastructure have deteriorated.

“They know they live they live in an economic wasteland,” says Lawson. “There’s definitely a sense of environmental racism. There’s a feeling that things were intentional, that we were lied to.”

When Flint declared the state of emergency in January, Daniel Saperstein, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Huron reached out to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, to help them address this long-term crisis of both health and infrastructure.

“We knew PDA was equipped to pray, care and organize on our behalf,” says Saperstein.

As PDA’s national response team went to work they recognized immediately the great deal of stress that pastors were under. Gail Farnham, a member of the response team, says their primary mission was to be a presence, letting the people of Flint know that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cared about them.

“Gail came into this crisis and brought warmth and a calming presence,” says Lawson, “which gave me energy to minister to those in my congregation.”

Like Denise and James Dixon, members of Trinity United they have felt the brunt of the mixed messages they have received from Flint officials about the running water into their homes. James Dixon is a dialysis patient.

“The population here either black or poor white,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. We’re nobody. You know?”

James Dixon has hundreds of bumps all over him, but now that he does his showers at his parent’s home outside of Flint, they’re not as visible. “I still wash my hair here, which is still giving me a few of them,” he says. “My dialysis nurse says it’s from the lead. Period.”

Denise Dixon is James primary caregiver. The city eventually told her not to drink the water, but if they used a filter they could wash their dishes in that water. “But the nurses at the dialysis clinic told us ‘no’ that lead would attach to the dishes,” so they started supplying us with paper plates, cups and plastic utensils.”

During its January visit, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance also worked with First Presbyterian Church, Flint, helping them set up Living Water Disaster Response Team. Paul Ytterock, the church’s associate pastor, says PDA’s presence—taking time to be a part of their struggle and to help them address the water crisis—speaks volumes.

“It’s huge,” he says. “Wonderful for me personally, and fantastic for our living water team.”

For the chair of that team, Todd Lamb, the latest crisis in Flint has been overwhelming—a lifetime Flint resident he felt like the city was just getting its legs underneath it. Lamb acknowledges that his socio-economic status has made it easier for him to live with a filter on his water faucet.

“Life goes on,” he says. “But it doesn’t go on for everybody, because there are different perspectives and different pressures on different people in different socio economic classes. Thinking. Everybody needs to be care for,” he says, choking back tears of emotion.

Pastor Lawson has been amazed at the good that has come from people, in the midst of this un-thinkable crisis. For her it has brought to life what guides Presbyterians’ lives together.

“It’s one to read about it in The Book of Order,” she says. “That we are connectional. But to live is amazing. People are still calling wanting to know how we’re doing. It makes me even more glad that I’m Presbyterian.”

Yttrock agrees, calling it “huge” for PDA to take the time to touch base with us, to make sure things are going, and if not asking for how can help.

Hearing this Gail Farnham says, “It’s nice to know how far those ripples go in a pond.”


Gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing help support PDA’s efforts in the Flint water crisis.


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