Flint’s Water: An Environmental Disaster

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An environmental and health atrocity has been committed against African Americans in Flint, Michigan. The water provided by the government, one of our institutions that is tasked to protect people has instead poisoned Flint residents. The City of Flint stopped buying their piped water from Detroit, instead using the polluted Flint River as a transitional source until Lake Huron water was available. Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling and other officials congratulated themselves for saving Flint millions. Unfortunately, African Americans had little to celebrate. Some of the gravest fall-outs of this environmental disaster is that chemicals like trihalomethane, a by-product of disinfectant, in the rivers causes rashes and pipes leached by the chemicals cause lead poisoning.

superdomenoGovernment agencies and political leaders have long passively neglected or actively abused African Americans when it comes to the environment and health. The United States has failed African Americans. And this is nothing new lest we forget the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment when from 1932 to 1972 scientists did not treat the syphilis in infected African American men in the study although treatment with penicillin was developed and readily available in 1947. The scientists watched the men slowly and painfully die from syphilis. Remember the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 when African Americans in parts of New Orleans and bordering parishes suffered for days in the Super Dome, the Conference Center, and countless other places waiting and waiting for their government to help to send help, to save them.

The challenges continue. Environmental racism is insidiously at work in Flint. Impoverished African Americans were stripped of healthy water, a necessary natural resource to be healthy, really to stay alive. Whites in power in the government transgressed African Americans in Flint. Whites used their power making adverse environment decisions to the benefit of white leadership and the detriment of African Americans in the city.

Thankfully, many have offered practical means of support including The United Methodist Church. Michigan Area’s Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey recently made a Flint Appeal, saying,

Flint’s pressing need for a new water infrastructure and the Flint children who face life-long cognitive and behavioral effects of lead poisoning require comprehensive and long-term solutions.  We must deal with the systemic issues of racism and poverty that have been part of this complex issue. As United Methodists in Michigan I believe we must be part of those long-term solutions; we must be among those who are first on the scene and last to leave.

The bishop’s appeal and financial contribution provides immediate support with items like filters and bottled water. The Michigan Area also understands that longterm plans are required to rectify the water crisis and assist African Americans in Flint and across the United States to be healthy, self-sustaining, and independent.

A Black Environmental Liberation Theology (BELT) is being invoked and practiced by African American churches and agencies. The Michigan Area United Methodist Church are doing the same as white allies to African Americans exposed to environmental threats and health issues in Flint. “Black liberation theology, which decries the oppression of African Americans based on biblical principles–is the foundation of BELT, a nascent theology” based on environmental justice and activism by African American Christians. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 190) Taken a step further, white allies like the United Methodist Church draw from this theology and are part of this activism. BELT is “a cornerstone of environmental justice” that dismantles environmental racism. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 189) A practical theology is evolving as Bishop Kiesey and others in the Michigan Area craft an environmental justice agenda for change for and with African Americans in Flint. My hope is that theology will be sustained with longterm action.

 

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2012 Helpshop: Where Environment, Spirituality, and Health Meet

With Leanna, A Participant

The Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) held their Helpshop on January 28, 2012 at Community Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The theme was “Mind, Body and Spirit” with Tanika Harris, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the UMC, serving as the keynote speaker. At the GBGM, “she provides resources as well as training opportunities to communities and churches throughout the country that are engaged in community development and social justice through advocacy and youth/young adult empowerment.” (Helpshop brochure) The breakout sessions included “Healthy and Vital Congregations,” “Sexual Health and Wholeness,” and “Remodeling the Temple.

I was invited to facilitate a session titled, “Africans Americans, Religion, the Environment, and Health.” We discussed:

  • Knowing one’s (environmental) history is good for you
  • Nature is healthy
  • Scripture and health
  • Better health of (African) Americans by experiencing the outdoors
  • Our Stories
  • A healthy mind: environmental meditation with African American themes

With William Meekins, UMC

One participant shared her memory of the fragrance of lilacs while spending time with her grandmother; the memory of those flowers evoked a spiritual connection, a connection to God. Our meditation included scripture, deep breathing, music, the sounds of the ocean,  prayer, and silence.

Many thanks to those in the Greensberg District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, UMC who organized the Helpshop: Holly Sawyer, administrative assistant and William Meekins, District Superintendent. Of special note: Community United Methodist Church did a wonderful job hosting the event. And of course, many thanks to Rev. Kathy Barnhart, Rev. Rhea Summit and Rev. Augie Twigg for their diligence and hard work.

Photo by Dianne Glave

Dean Ziegler’s Nature Photos: Rorschach for the Environment

When I first met Dean Ziegler, he told me he was a photographer. So I asked him, “Do you have any images of insects I could use for a blog?” Don’t ask me what my recent fascination is with bugs. Well, he said, “No, but I have plenty of flowers.” And so we began exchanging emails. 

The photos became a catalyst for considering my own experiences and the environment. What follows is a mixture, a Rorschach test of sorts based on the photos: 

Patmos Carved Shells by DZ

These shells speak to me. My parents are from Jamaica, a place surrounded by salt water, fish, sand, and shells. When I was a child, I remember going to beaches with stretches of white white sand and clear blue water where I saw multi-hued fish and seashells. 

I also remember my trip to Mykonos, an island off Greece. I went on vacation with my brother. Everyday, we went to a different beach with names like Paradise, Super Paradise, and Super Super Paradise on small boats. On one beach, I was looking at the sand one moment and in the next there was a dark-haired man riding a black stallion along the stretch of beach. Hey, it’s Mykonos; it felt like I was in the middle of a movie production.  

Shells also make me think of oil. Today, life along the Gulf and beyond is endangered. Clams and more fill shells that often end up on plates in restaurants on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The BP oil slick endangers the fishing industry and by extension the restaurant and tourist businesses. But even worse are the images of birds slimed by oil and fragile wetlands in southern Louisiana coated by oil. Sigh.

Fresh cut Sunflowers

This one is easy. Two thoughts. First, when I met Dean he told me I looked like a sunflower. Such a nice thing to say. Second, the flowers remind me of my Uncle Basil’s funeral in Jamaica. Some beautiful purplish red waxy flowers appeared the morning of the funeral. It was a sad time missing my uncle. It was also a good time because these funerals brought the extended family together from points all over the United States to Jamaica.

Rialto Beach, Olympic Peninsula, WA

Since I’m already talking about death, I’m ok with continuing with this theme. This photo reminds me of the dead cypresses I spotted driving on I-10 south from New Orleans on the way to Grand Isle, Louisiana. I said to my seat-mate–I was with a group–“I think the dead cypressesare beautiful.” He was aghast and said, “What about the living things?” I responded saying, “There is no life without death.” This attitude has deepened for me during my recent internship as a chaplain. I am comfortable with death, while still embracing and enjoying life.

Dean D. Ziegler, originally from Franklin, PA, resides in Harmony, PA, and is the Superintendent of the Butler District of the United Methodist Church, Western Pennsylvania Conference.

He is married to Linda, has two grown children and two grandchildren.

All Photos by Dean D. Ziegler, Copyright 2010 

Rorschach Responses by Dianne Glave