The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has moved in and out of headlines across the United States, but the human need and compassionate response have remained constant.
The politics of the situation are still being sorted out, and long-term solutions are being explored. In the meantime, the Crossroads District of the Detroit Conference is grateful for all the support from across the United Methodist connection. Together, God's people are building courage and creating trust in the midst of a desperate situation.
"A lot of Flint residents are throwing their hands up," said Pete Plum, the Crossroads District emergency water resources coordinator. "They believe things are not moving quickly enough so there's lots of hopelessness." However, Plum added, "The pastors and volunteers I work with are not giving up. They are in the trenches, taking water to people and calming their fears."
When he began work in November 2015, Plum asked for financial assistance from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). They quickly approved a $10,000 grant. "That got us off the ground purchasing filtration systems and replacement filters," he said.
Plum first organized and supplied eight United Methodist churches in Flint as Water Resource Centers. At that time, Flint had just returned to the Detroit water loop. Plum remembered thinking, "Things will be OK now." Soon everyone learned the damage to the city's infrastructure was permanent.
"At that point it didn't matter whether water was coming from Detroit or the Colorado Rockies," Plum said.
Signs in English and Spanish, placed in churchyards and on the street, alerted the public that the churches were places to receive clean water and lots of hospitality. From the beginning, those walking through the doors of the resource centers got what they needed with no questions asked.
Plum and the United Methodist pastors soon became involved in Community Partners, a collaboration of agencies networking their efforts to respond to the water crisis. One grassroots group of social workers, Crossing Waters, makes home visits to residents to discern needs.
"They told us that people are afraid and may continue to use bottled water even after what comes out of their tap tests good," Plum said. Ongoing education and reassurance are as important as water filters in such cases.
In February, Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey appealed to United Methodists in Michigan for monetary support.
As of April 7, the Detroit Conference treasurer had received close to $132,000 in donations for water relief. Michigan donors account for around $100,000 of the total; gifts totaling $32,000 have come in from 25 other states.
Sustaining the effort is a challenge. The state police officer with whom he deals told Plum, "We have given away enough filters for every resident in the city to have three."
However, those working person-to-person every day know that not everyone has a filter. "Some people are shut-in and other people are shut-out, and some don't know how to properly use the supplies," Plum said. That's where the "outstanding people of God" come in.
Engaging ordinary people
The U.S. media spotlight is now off Flint, and the celebrities are gone.
"The crisis continues but the popularity has waned," Plum explained. "Still, there are a lot of ordinary people doing a lot of things for Flint, so I am not discouraged."
Some of these ordinary people are from nearby. They include the group of Crossroads District youth who delivered 50 cases of water and earned $5,000 for water relief through a skate-a-thon. The Islamic Relief organization in Flint has mobilized to get water to homebound people — the elderly, those without cars and single working parents. "Whether they know it or not," Plum reflects, "all these people are helping Jesus."
Some of the ordinary saints are from far away. Students from United Methodist-related Iowa Wesleyan University, Marquette University and North Central College in Illinois spent spring break in Flint distributing water. High school students from Toronto, Canada, also pitched in.
Cases of water have arrived in Ryder trucks, pick-ups, vans and the back seats of cars driven by United Methodists from Michigan, Maryland, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia and Virginia. "Given the amount of bottled water needed, some of the deliveries are like a Dixie cup. But each ounce is appreciated," Plum said
Relying on faith
Three deliveries of donated water are now arriving at two United Methodist churches every week. Sometimes a truck carrying 2,000 cases of water comes into the parking lot and there is no one to unload it. "I really need volunteers!" Plum exclaims. (You do the math: three semis a week x 24 bottles to a case x 100 cases to a skid x 20 skids to a truck = lotsa water.)
However, all that bottled water is not a long-term answer. Plum reports that pipe replacement has begun across the city. He also is aware that the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing an organophosphate treatment that might prove effective in the re-coating of damaged pipes. "That could be more feasible than digging up 30,000 lawns," he said.
Plum grew up in Flint and is a member of Seymour Lake United Methodist Church where his wife, Janine, is pastor. His background in support services and mobilization prepared him well for the groundwork and public relations required for this task.
"I would never have seen myself in a role like this," he admitted. "That's where my faith background kicks in. Jesus is good and makes me good. This project is so much bigger than I am."
On April 1, Plum became full-time thanks to another grant from UMCOR. Admittedly, there is no end game in sight. "Crossroads District plans to be up and running for as long as it takes," he said.
While others work on long-term solutions that address the big plumbing picture, Plum is committed to the job at hand: offering the compassion of Jesus Christ.
"It all seems bleak," he said, "but God is bigger than this problem, and God will get us through."
The Rev. Kay DeMoss is senior editor-writer for the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church.
Donations for the Flint Water Crisis can be sent to Detroit Conference Treasurer's Office, 1309 N. Ballenger Hwy., Suite 1, Flint, MI 48504. Make checks payable to "Detroit Conference" with "#0918 (Crossroads District Water Response)" in the memo line. Donate online at http://bit.ly/FlintRelief.