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Olivet Chapel, November 2015

Speaking at Olivet Nazarene University’s chapel service on a panel about graduates living in Flint, Michigan.

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Living Inside the #FlintWaterCrisis (extended article)

(an extended, yet less polished version of the article appearing here: https://sojo.net/articles/living-inside-flint-water-crisis)

In the Flint Public Library, there is, of course, a “religion” section, and the computer said the book I was looking for on the early American church was in, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. Let me take a minute to tell you why, may the answer challenge you to a deeper understanding of the Flint Water Crisis, and may this ultimately lead you to reconsider and change your posture towards “the inner city.”

You see, the book I was looking for was Slave Religion, a history of the foundations of the black church. While I had been raised around Flint and while we had been living here for a few years at this point, I was just then realizing how little I knew about it, and, with it having a majority black population, how little I knew about my neighbors and their history. I was starting to dig in. But why couldn’t I find this book?

We (meaning me, my wife, and my two young daughters) had moved back to Flint a few years ago with the best of intentions. Inspired by the budding new monasticism movement and wanting to really understand and live the call of Christ, we felt particularly convicted by two statements made by mentors which led us to move back “home” instead of out to “save the world.” The first statement was from someone who had lived and served in Apartheid South Africa as well as in some difficult neighborhoods in the Deep South of the US. He said, regarding us young, white do-gooders wanting to “save” Africa: “Don’t need to go to Africa to find great hurt, need, and brokenness. However, it is all about where you put yourself and who you associate with.”

The second was a well-known quote, but it came to us by way of a mentor. It is that “it takes as long to get out of the forest as it takes to in to it;” recognizing that there are no quick solutions to complex problems. Mainly these two, though combined of course with many other learnings, led us to rethink our convictions about needing to “go out” with a passport to “save” people and led us back to our home region; to Flint, which as the time, was making headlines as “America’s Most Violent City.” We were coming to help, and we were prepared to be there a long time. But what we didn’t realize was how much work Flint had to do on us first.

As it turns out, at the core of Flint’s problems was us.

I recoiled harshly, as I’m sure you will, when I heard suggested that white supremacy was at  the core of the issues Flint had been dealing with for decades and continued to struggle with now. I knew what white supremacy was. It was my great-grandfather who was part of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the police officers beating protesters during the Civil Rights movement. There was no way that my good intentions to help Flint had any white supremacy in them. But, as it turns out, that’s where I, and to a large degree most white Christians, are wrong. White supremacy in 1920 is easy to identify now. White supremacy in 2016 is much more of an elusive and invisible monster to identify. The working definition I find helpful of white supremacy today is anytime we deny that the original and unrepented sin of America is racism, live unaware that people of color still suffer disproportionately all around “us” (not knowing that “us” usually means “us white people”), and allow our lives to exist separate of these realities instead of leaning in to them.

And the worst part about the new manifestation of white supremacy is that it is precisely that recoil or it’s equal opposite of knee-jerk overcompensating that feeds it and allows it to grow. Jumping quickly to dismiss it or immediately throwing yourself onto the problem hoping that you can “fix it” both feed the root problem. So what do you do? Well, I’ve found is that when I, as a majority culture person, put myself in a marginalized area of society humbly, authentically, and consistently such that I start to identify with those that live there… when it feels odd in my mouth to use the phrase “the poor” because it sounds funny referring to my neighbors and friends that way… I start to see clearly the elusive version of our generation’s type of white supremacy.

So, to bring it home a bit, when we’re living in a struggle with a community for years and then something happens to peak the interest of the media, and then rockstars, movie directors, and the world decides to come for a week or two to “help us,” white supremacy is visible. It’s the feeling of obligation and calling to “fix” others regardless of their expressed or felt needs. In reaching past the plank in our eye of unrepented racial sin in order to remove the specks in the eyes of those living in the “inner city,” white supremacy is visible.

Yes, emergency relief is important. Yes, the people of Flint are struggling. But don’t confuse emergency relief with true healing or healthy development. Don’t try to help while missing the connection between our struggle in Flint and your life choices. When white people a few decades ago approved of redlining mortgages and redrew school districts to exclude minority neighbors, the seed of emergency need was sown. When black neighborhoods were relocated to government projects and their businesses were forcibly purchased for less than the price of vacant land so that interstates could be built, the seed of emergency need was watered. When our grandparents and parents moved out of town in the name of finding a “better” (whiter) community, the seed was fertilized. When the free market allowed tens of thousands of jobs to be removed from a community leaving a polluted river, superfund sites, and epic unemployment in its wake, the seed became a large plant. Now, the plant is yielding some good and bad fruit, and those indirectly responsible for it’s development point only to the bad fruit (like poisoned water or violence) and call it a national crisis (while disavowing any connection to it). Instead, we must admit that we are all connected, even when we believe we are safely segregated. The Flint Water Crisis is an indirect product of the ebb and flow of a free market. The market moved on, like it always does. So when we demand new, shiny businesses in a “new” part of town, when we go to the “new” mall in town instead of the “other” mall, we are building the next Flint Water Crisis. It’s okay to admit that. It’s not ok to deny it as the normal functioning of our economic system and then cry out in shock when we see its effects.

But there is another story. Someone in town yesterday said, yes, the water issue is a struggle, but we’ll persevere and get through it. That’s the story that needs to be reported. Not the story of wealthy people who decide they can all of a sudden “fix it.” There are glimmers of hope here. They’re off the well-worn path of the often told story of calamity, but they are there never the less. In a sense, and I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but I think I can say that living through this recent media circus has given me a microscopic understanding of what it must feel like for people in the “Third World” to carry the burden of “help” from the “First World:”

You’re in a community that’s not been doing well for a long time but does have some glimmers of hope… when, all of a sudden, white folks from the outside declare your community “in need” and swoop in to dump solutions and resources on you thinking that the problem can be “fixed.” Instead, the surge of resources dumped on the community without understanding or context only exacerbates and exaggerates divisions and tensions that were already present in the community, overlooks root causes, and then (likely) disappears just as fast as it appeared leaving a lot of “picking up to do” in their wake. As someone trained in community development living in Flint, it’s been difficult for me to determine exactly what we need, let alone celebrities flying in from NYC. Flint is a complex problem and this water thing is just a component of it. Dumping one million plastic bottles of water on the city is just scratching the surface. The solutions are complex and hard to comprehend and unfortunately few in the national discourse of the water crisis want to acknowledge that. We’re a “problem” that everyone is trying to “fix” right now. Such is the way of white supremacy: acting on a situation with the wrong posture from the wrong position, and not knowing it.

Here’s why I couldn’t find the book at the library: I didn’t question my assumptions and take my blinders off. I saw that the book was theological in nature, that is was ‘in,’ and I looked to see what its catalog number was. It was only in not being able to find it and in asking for help from an “insider” (library staff) that I learned that it was in a whole other part of the library. It was in the African American Literature wing. I hadn’t even known or cared that we had a wing like that until that point. I was in the wrong place with the wrong posture. As a white person, this was a significant moment for me even though it would be ridiculous to someone from a minority position in our society.

In full transparency, having to walk to the other end of the library, to a special section, to be a young white man very clearly walking towards the isolated African American Lit. section through a crowded computer lab of mostly black folks, was a new and significant feeling. Don’t get me wrong. I live and work and worship in a city where I am the minority, so I live a life of relative diversity. But in this moment at the library, being caught in my assumption that if I couldn’t find the book it was because the library was wrong, not because I was wrong (looking back at the computer, it clearly said that it was in the African American Lit section), having to do something different and slightly uncomfortable in the moment in order to get what I needed, these were the moments where white supremacy still lived in me and lives in the US. Ignorance, as white people, of our position in this country and how our posture of “knowing” and “leading” looks to those we don’t know we are oppressing is today’s white supremacy. It’s what leads to the awkward “mission trip” moments where white Christians go to a foreign community for a week to dump clothes and paint on people who, all the while, find the charade quite humorous and ineffective even though they smile and only critique us in their language that we can’t understand.

So, for today, like me in the library, I encourage us white Christians to change our position and our posture and to seek new knowledge of who we are in the world that our ancestors have created. Yes, there is work to be done in our country and especially in Flint. But before launching into “fix it” mode, take a minute to look around. Check your posture and your position. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t seek to lead. Read, ask, don’t be defensive. Take action, but do so with immense humility. Be invited, don’t impose. And then, once you’ve allowed God to do a new work in you, once you have repented for our plank and sought shalom for our country’s legacy… then, maybe God will use you to help.