Editorial: Lessons from Flint

For the people of Flint, Michigan, the corporal work of mercy “give drink to the thirsty” has taken on a powerfully personal meaning during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Nearly two years into a water crisis that only was fully acknowledged five months ago, the people of Flint are living a public nightmare — one in which they can no longer count on one of the First World’s most basic commodities: fresh water.

But prior to the change in the city’s water source in April 2014, and the water’s subsequent contamination from lead and other pollutants, the city of Flint already was in dire straits. Located in the heart of the Rust Belt, Flint had been hit hard in the 1980s with the loss of many General Motors jobs. The economic toll turned Flint into a city with 41 percent of its citizens living below the poverty level — including 62 percent of children — and high levels of violent crime.

Commendably, the local Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties have been on the front lines in Flint for decades, particularly since the economic depression. As jobs declined and crime rose, the organization has done its best to meet the needs of the community during tough times.

In May 2015, the Diocese of Lansing took a more formal stand, beginning a “Faith in Flint” initiative to address the issue of “systemic poverty” in the area. The message was clear: It’s time for people of faith to rally around Flint, and the Catholic Church was going to help lead the way.

“Poverty, of course as we know, is in every community,” Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea said during a press conference at the time. “However when this sort of persistent poverty hits a community, its effects are as devastating as a natural disaster.”

The timing of the effort was providential. Six months later, the Faith in Flint project became a primary avenue for assisting the city in the midst of its water crisis.

The lessons from both the Flint water crisis and the subsequent response are many, but two stand out for us as people of faith. First, Flint reminds us of the great truth that minor negligence has a way of resulting in major consequences. As our country’s infrastructure continues to age — and we citizens generally continue to take it for granted — we will see more Flints, more bridge collapses like that in Minneapolis in 2007, and more breakdowns in the basic systems that are at the foundation of daily life in this country. Being attentive to our country’s infrastructure by advocating for its continued improvement is critical when it comes to working toward the common good. It is a moral responsibility of each of us, particularly where our nation’s poorest areas are concerned.

Second, Flint reminds us that the Church must continue to examine and improve its own infrastructure of aid. The Diocese of Lansing has been so successful in assisting the people of Flint with the water crisis in part because it already had an effective process in place for serving the community — one that involves working closely with local government, business leaders and people of other faiths to achieve a common goal. Through Faith in Flint, we see an example of how a focused, collaborative effort can have a prodigious effect on community life.

As Catholics around the nation continue to respond to the needs in Flint, may we also be inspired to increase our attentiveness to our infrastructure, both nationally and within our Church, in order to best work together to serve the common good and one another.

Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor