Theresa Latini is taking a short break from her rotation on The Twelve. While she’s away, we will be hearing from Kate Kooyman. Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Witness in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Kate.
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water. Psalm 114:7-8
Can I get something off my chest?
For a long time, I’ve been a little annoyed by the Christian community’s fixation on clean water. I know that makes me sound like a horrible person. But I felt like every time I said “social justice” I found a church pointing me to their twenty-five wells in Africa—and because of this unilateral focus, they wouldn’t be able to consider signing a statement about immigration, or sending an email to Congress about climate change, or hosting a book study on The New Jim Crow.
Just to defend myself: I love water. I shower in it regularly. I made some into coffee a few minutes ago. When I lived in Honduras, the lack of drinkable tap water was the experience that most regularly reminded me of my privilege. I believe water is a human right. I believe water is a sign of God’s providence for a thirsty people. I care deeply about the senselessness of kids with chronic illness due to water contamination, girls who can’t go to school because they have to trek for miles to a well. Truth be told, I’ve dropped some cash into the clean water coffers myself. Water is a justice issue.
But it has felt to me like “mission: clean water” has done a great job of comforting the American (white) church. But it has not done a great job of teaching us the demands of “doing justice.” It has allowed us to contribute from our vast resources of money and education and cultural superiority to those poor folks across an ocean who have corrupt leaders, inexplicable poverty, and so few tools to solve their own problems. But it has not taught us to question the systems that have created such a need.
The clean water trend feels to me like The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. When problems are far away, they’re easy to understand and easy to solve. When they’re close by, they’re complex and intractable. Foreign leaders are incompetent. Someone I voted for is probably just misunderstood.
There’s a water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint is fifty-five percent African American. Flint is forty percent poor. And Flint’s water is poisoned. By corrupt government leaders in Lansing. The clean water crisis isn’t far off—it is very near. And it is a crisis deeply rooted in racism, in poverty, and in politics. While the solution might not be to drill a well, the need is no less urgent.
I know that Rachel Maddow is outraged. Michael Moore is mobilizing. Hillary’s got a statement out there. But for all our faith-talk about the spirituality of water, for all our glossy pictures of smiling kids at flowing spigots in the African sunshine, I have heard precious little from our churches on this unfathomable breach of trust—the literal poisoning of the well—in our own land.
This is not an issue for liberal pundits—this is an opportunity for people of faith. We know a God of water: the Spirit hovered over it, the Creator separated it, the Restorer placed a rainbow over a flood of it, the Deliverer let the people pass through it, the Savior was baptized in it, and we all came to new life bathed it it.
And justice rolls down like it.
How to get involved:
• Rev. Kristi Kiel (Resurrection Reformed Church in Flint), suggests donations to Carriage Town Ministries. “Every school, nursing home, homeless shelter has been profoundly affected, as they must find clean water for drinking, cooking, hand washing, etc. Carriage Town Ministries is one of the largest ministries for the residents of the city, including two shelters with residential programs, transitional housing, a daily meal program, a food pantry, etc. This crisis has strained their financial resources for many months.”
• Take a critical look at your congregation’s mission and outreach programs to see if there’s a way to more faithfully address systemic injustices both near and far. Consider getting some help from Communities First Association, a local Christian Community Development Association ministry, or the Christian Reformed Office of Social Justice.
• If you’re in Michigan, call your state legislators and ask how they plan to hold the executive branch accountable for this failure of trust.