By Emilie Bouvier
An unlikely group of people gathered at a Catholic retreat center last month in rural Michigan. We were a combination of faith leaders from institutions around the Midwest and frontline activists from Flint and Detroit working amidst the ongoing water crises there.
Amidst the aromas of cafeteria-style comfort food, I sat down for lunch the first day next to a woman my age from Flint as she was sipping tea. She was fairly quiet yet playfully snarky, and we struck up a conversation about the unique mug that she picked up at a thrift store on her way over. (For those of you who know me, it won’t come as a surprise to you that we connected over such things.) She described the teas she brought and their healing qualities, and I assumed from her soft and raspy voice that she brought the tea because she was getting over a cold.
That evening as we gathered in a circle outside at dusk, she had difficultly speaking loudly enough for the group to hear her. I was wrong about the cold, as she apologized for her voice she added very matter-of-factly “it’s because of the water.” The tea I had noticed was just one of many healing practices she had incorporated into her daily routine to deal with the chronic health issues she was experiencing on account of the water contamination. Her routine also includes waiting in line every week, sometimes for hours, for bottled water.
“The young woman described the teas she brought and their healing qualities, and I assumed from her soft and raspy voice that she brought the tea because she was getting over a cold.”
As the sun set we made our way around the circle, sharing snippets of our stories and of the reasons that brought us together. When we reached Bishop Bernadel Jefferson, an African-American Non-Denominational faith leader, her voice started with the same matter-of-fact-ness. But then, as she began talking about the effects of the poisoned water on her grandson, the volume and tenor of her voice revealed an edge of emotion and continued to rise. “He loved school. He was an exemplary student, selected to go on a national trip to visit D.C. with other students from around the country, … representing our city.”
She paused, letting the irony sink in of her grandson’s pride to represent the city that ultimately poisoned him. “He was an A student! And now he gets Ds! We know it was because of the water!” She was almost shouting at this point, filled with a mix of anger at government officials who told her the water was fine, resentment of a system that clearly didn’t count her family’s well-being to be as valuable as economic gains, and despair over seeing her beloved grandbaby now unable to live his full potential. Her voice broke off and the silence returned.
THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL context surrounding these stories are equally wrenching. The poisoned water was the direct result of decisions made by unelected government officials. Because emergency managers are appointed, they effectively take away the democratic rights of residents who suffer the consequences of decisions made by them. Of Michigan’s state population, 15% are people of color. Of Michigan’s state population currently under the direction of an emergency manager, 70% are people of color. The water crisis is the result of structural systems that are rooted in and perpetuate racial injustice, and dismantle poor communities from which the state has clearly already disinvested.
When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war; they overshout the voice of reason and scream till we ignore all we held dear before. These words come back to mind for me as I revisit the stories and swell of pain I experienced in that circle. They are lyrics of an Advent hymn in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (#252). I just discovered it this week and its poignant verses are still turning over in my head.
“The water crisis is the result of structural systems that are rooted in and perpetuate racial injustice, and dismantle poor communities from which the state has clearly already disinvested.”
When we hear these voices crying out, what is it that we need to let go of that we held too dearly before? Is it the belief that our governments are infallible? That corruption that doesn’t disenfranchise me directly, isn’t my problem? Do we need to let go of the grasp on corporations too necessary that we should turn the other way when we see our water being commodified? Or maybe is it the feeling that since the majority of Lutherans (since our denomination is 98% white) aren’t likely going to have our water contaminated, that we can externalize these crises and separate ourselves from it? Is it that the world seems too heavy to continue to grieve and for us to believe we can actually fix such problems?
Can you hear the voices of our neighbors crying loudly enough to let such things go? Can you let yourself sit with the struggle such that growth can flower from our grieving, … that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith?
I’ll leave you with that challenge. And perhaps the challenge to sing hymn 252 sometime during Advent.