By Candice Hill Buchbinder, ELCA News
In response to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., members from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Livonia, Mich., delivered more than 3,000 gallons of donated water Jan. 31 to the congregation of Salem Lutheran Church in Flint.
“I thought it was a tremendous outpouring of love,” said the Rev. Monica Villarreal, pastor of Salem. “It was a wonderful expression of love that came to Flint.”
“We’ve got a little heart for Salem and what they’re doing in Flint,” said Kathy Weinberg, a member of Holy Trinity. “We know how important it is that they stay in their community and reach out to the people.”
Villarreal said including the donations from Holy Trinity, Salem has received water from 25 Michigan congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Villarreal, who was born and raised in Flint, said the city’s water crisis has affected her “personally as well as professionally.”
“This situation has changed how I view ministry. It’s changed how I view my work and role as a pastor,” she said. “The church must be a place of the community. The church is, in fact, the people. And when you’re serving in a community that has been afflicted upon in the ways that Flint, Michigan, has, there is no boundary. The church walls explode and we become the body of Christ, the wounded body of Christ in the world.”
In 2014 the city of Flint changed its water source from the city of Detroit to the Flint River. Soon after the switch, high levels of lead were found in the drinking water and local doctors began reporting elevated levels of lead in the blood of children. The health risks associated with lead exposure include damage to the nervous system, speech and language problems and poor muscle coordination. A state of emergency has been declared in Flint by the both the state of Michigan and the U.S. government.
“People from all over the community come to this church to find hope, to find healing, to find peace. And now we see families come here to search for life in the form of water,” said Villarreal.
The members of Salem distribute most of the donated water to residents living in the community near Salem. But the church’s ministry to its neighbors doesn’t end with a few gallons of donated water.
“As a pastor I can’t help but think about the words we have in our baptism: the waters of Christ that flow over us in our baptism and call us to work for justice and peace throughout the world. I think what we do here as the church – and that’s not just Salem Lutheran Church but that’s also the ELCA – is very important to our witness to people,” said Villarreal. “The faith community is what is holding this community together still because it’s all that we have left.”
Flint residents Jackie and Keith Pemberton, members of Our Risen Lord Lutheran in nearby Burton, have been involved in community efforts to help raise awareness of the water crisis, including City Council meetings and local rallies.
“I believe the Lord has a plan for us,” said Jackie Pemberton. “I don’t know what it is, but I have seen a community that was very, very divided (now) come together. One thing we do every time we are together is pray. We have pastors from all kinds of faiths and we just thank the Lord that he’s there to help us. That’s what we have. I pray every day for this community. You have to. If you don’t have faith, then what do you have?” she asked.
ELCA World Hunger will disburse $5,000 to the ELCA Southeast Michigan Synod to help support the immediate need for water and the food pantry at Salem. Villarreal said the funds to the food pantry will be used to purchase foods that meet the nutritional needs of children and adults with lead poisoning as recommended by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
A Feb. 1 action alert from the Rev. Amy Reumann, director, ELCA Advocacy and the Rev. Donald P. Kreiss, bishop of the ELCA Southeast Michigan Synod, states: “Many concerned Lutherans around the country are praying for the city and asking what else they can do to help the people of Flint. ELCA Advocacy and the Southeastern Michigan Synod are collaborating to invite you to advocate for an amendment to a bipartisan energy bill that would increase immediate relief and work towards long-term solutions for Flint. As church together, we will continue to advocate for clean water for all God’s children, particularly in impoverished places or communities of color, such as Flint.”
“Certainly across the whole ELCA prayers are much appreciated and supported,” said Villarreal. “Anytime we uplift the suffering of any part of the body of Christ, we are community together and it keeps on people’s hearts and minds about what is happening in the world. God is in all places in all times, so that is very important to us.”
Information is available at www.semisynod.com/cms/.
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