Flint: America's newest mission field

January 28th, 2016

What cause has brought rock and acting legend Cher and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz together? The same one that has brought together a militia group and Michael Moore: the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

This town with approximately 100,000 residents, 40 percent of whom live at or below poverty, is America’s newest mission field. I say this because Flint’s residents will need support for a generation or two at least, long after the immediate infrastructure crisis is resolved.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told CBS News that Flint’s children will likely suffer permanent and life-long damage from being exposed to lead-tainted water.

"The problem here is, no level of lead is safe," Landrigan said. "Even low levels of lead — especially if exposure to low levels continues over many months — is going to cause some degree of brain damage to at least some of the children who have been exposed.

"These children are going to be injured for life. They're going to need remedial education, they're going to need educational enrichment programs."

Experts like Landrigan expect that children in Flint who have been exposed to lead will have behavioral problems, lower IQ scores, and developmental issues. They will have to be identified and tracked to ensure that they get the care they will need, Landrigan said.

There is a deep, searing sense of injustice about what happened in Flint that calls for civil and political solutions, perhaps even criminal penalties.

"What has happened in Flint, Michigan is an absolute travesty,” Cruz said while campaigning in New Hampshire recently. “The men and women have been betrayed. Every one of us is entitled to have clean water.” 

Credit Cruz for doing more than just making Flint a talking point. His campaign also distributed 600 gallons of clean water to residents at crisis pregnancy centers, a homeless shelter and other locations, according to the Ted Cruz for Michigan Facebook page.

Cher, who has called Michigan Gov. Rick Synder a “murderer,” partnered with Icelandic Glacial  to have more than 181,000 bottles of water delivered to Flint. Other celebrities, including Jimmy Fallon, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Mark Wahlberg are making sizable donations of cash or water to help the residents.

All of this help is needed desperately, since the city’s water is too tainted to use.

“This is an impoverished city,” explained Lanice Lawson, founder of Bottles For The Babies, an organization that has distributed thousands of units of bottled water to Flint’s citizens. “Most of the residents are struggling.”

Lawson grew up in Flint and still lives in the vicinity, though outside of the city limits. Her feelings are very, very strong.

“This should be considered a crime against humanity,” Lawson said.

Cruz has called for prayer. The militia has called for armed resistance, which seems an extreme and questionable response, but perhaps is a reflection of the understandable outrage of its members.

I’d like to see something between the two: At least one Christian denomination needs to adopt Flint. I challenge two to consider this: my own, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the one whose publishing house maintains this website, The United Methodist Church. Both of these denominations have the reach and resources to create a long-term strategy to minister to the needs of the people of Flint.

I don’t mean proselytizing or baptizing or preaching doctrine, the traditional focus of missionary models. I’m talking about unconditional support in the form of water, advocacy and any other long-term help that Flint’s residents will need.

If a denomination takes on this challenge, it should not expect any benefits for itself in return. The focus should be on the immediate, life-or-death needs of the children and families in Flint.

Need an incentive? AQUAhydrate, the company whose owners include Combs and Wahlberg, has pledged to provide Flint with water until its water issues are resolved.

If a secular company, owned in part by two producers of some of the most secular media content in American culture, can be that committed to helping people in need, shouldn’t a denomination that claims Jesus Christ as its example and savior be even more committed?

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