First Presbyterian Church of Flint, Michigan, could be described as a diamond in the rough for citizens in the city. The church, which has a long history of community involvement, is becoming a beacon for low-income citizens who seek help in the midst of crisis.
For nearly two years, Flint has been embattled in a drinking water contamination crisis, creating a serious public health danger. When the drinking source was switched from Lake Huron water to the Flint River, lead from aging pipes began to leach into the water supply. As a result, between 6,000 and 12,000 residents have experienced a series of health problems including high levels of lead in the blood.
Government officials estimate that completely revamping the water system could run into the billions of dollars and take years. Various organizations and churches have mobilized to help with the problem by collecting bottled water and educating the public in and around Flint about the dangers and health concerns. On January 16, President Obama declared a state of emergency in response to the water crisis in Flint.
Three Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers visited the city this week to see how churches are coping with the crisis and reaching citizens. One of their first visits was Sunday morning worship at First Presbyterian Church.
“Every single Sunday morning, they have a breakfast for people in the community. It is a walk-in free breakfast serving 200 to 500 people every week,” says Gail Farnham, PDA volunteer team leader. “Probably 50 to 60 percent are homeless, most of them are men. There are very few women and children. It was very impressive, and we felt this church was connected to the community.”
Farnham and her team talked with church volunteers and found a burning desire for community service. They also talked with those who came for the breakfast and discovered many who had other things on their minds than water contamination.
“The ones we talked to at the breakfast did not express feelings at all,” she says. “There was no anger, and many felt there were other things to worry about, including how they were going to eat or feed their children in the days to come.”
Farnham credits the church’s pastor and staff with encouraging the 300-member congregation to engage in community service.
“These weekly breakfasts did not come from the water crisis, but because of their efforts, they have become a highly trusted church for citizens in the area,” says Farnham. “Many people in the church want to help. They want to reach out.”
Following the breakfast and worship, the volunteers gave those interested an overview of PDA and offered assistance in getting the church involved with disaster outreach.
“About 70 to 75 people showed up for the meeting. By the end, at least 20 volunteered to be on a disaster response team,” says Farnham. “That was amazing, and I credit their pastor for their enthusiasm.”
The PDA team visited other churches in the area where pastors indicate many people are not expressing anger but submission, saying they don’t believe they are “worthy of getting clean water.” The economically depressed area also has a high illiteracy rate and low education.
The group also met with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF), which has been active in promoting access to healthy food, literacy, and neighborhood small groups. CFGF is working to expand these activities around the current water crisis.
In its final report to PDA staff, the volunteer team recommends continuous outreach to other Presbyterian churches in the Lake Huron Presbytery, the formation of a disaster team, and ongoing meetings with Red Cross, VOAD and FEMA representatives.
For more information on how to get involved and support the efforts in Flint, click here.