Saturday, February 27, 2016

Flint Humanitarian Crisis Brings Us Together in Compassion and Community

“We pray for the babies whose bodies have been poisoned by lead,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch as he led a prayer circle in Flint with a group of volunteers who had transported 16,000 bottles of fresh water to help alleviate the suffering of children, families and entire communities whose drinking water is contaminated by lead. When he prayed for the babies, tears welled up, as we were reminded that so many children have been needlessly poisoned. How can this neglect of a community happen in the United States, such a wealthy nation? 

In January, the governor of Michigan declared a state of emergency in the City of Flint and Genesee County because of elevated levels of lead found in its general water supply, which left thousands of residents exposed to toxic pollution of their drinking water. Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John’s Bible Church in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago declared, “Flint is a crime scene.”
Rev. Acree also specifically asked at the annual meeting of the Community of Congregations for our congregations to consider joining the Water for Life Campaign of the Leader’s Network. The Leader’s Network is a clergy-led gathering of community leaders addressing the needs of the West Side of Chicago. They also engage in humanitarian work, when crises like Flint emerge. They have a history of responding to disasters that affect underserved populations. 

Rev. Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in North Lawndale, along with Rev. Acree and leaders from six other churches in Chicago’s West Side, had gathered funding and supplies to help the stricken population. I was invited to travel with them since my own congregation agreed to participate. We took up our own emergency collection. 

Rev. Cy Fields, Senior Pastor of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in East Garfield Park, advised me that a truck had been donated by World Vision of Chicago (a national program that helps meet basic needs of young people, such responding to disasters, feeding the hungry and offering learning opportunities.) World Vision’s generosity, however, was outmatched by those who had donated water, so we had to find another truck.  

I was in charge of negotiating with the truck rentals, and ended up with a 24-foot rig, which I drove to New Mount Pilgrim, where the first truck was nearly loaded and the press had already gathered. After packing up the water, two trucks set off on a bumpy and adventure-filled drive to Michigan.  Our fellow truck driver was pulled over by the highway patrol, who told him that his truck was 10,000 pounds over weight. They inspected the truck and confirmed this was a humanitarian mission, and let him continue. 

In late afternoon, we pulled into the lot of Flint’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. We created a line of volunteers who stacked the gallons of water in the Church’s garage, then ended up making a trip to a Sam’s Club where we bought more truckloads of water. 

We learned how many people in Flint haven’t ever had it easy and this crisis was just one more challenge to survive. Volunteers told us about having to bathe only with cold water because hot water has a higher lead content. Stories of parents learning that their children have high lead levels in their blood were the most sobering. 
According to the U.S. Census, more than 40 percent of Flint’s population is living in poverty, making it the second most poverty-stricken city in the nation for its size.  The City itself has faced multiple financial crises that finally put it into emergency receivership. In an attempt to save money, the city council voted in 2013 to purchase water from the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) rather than from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.  The KWA project was not expected to be completed until the end of 2016, so the city decided to rely on its backup, the Flint River, which had been polluted with debris from the auto plants.
After a long day, the women from the Antioch Missionary Baptist church made dinner for the 16 of us including fried pork chops and fried corn on the cob. None of us from Chicago had fried eaten fried corn on the cob before.  Rev. Fields and I hadn’t eaten all day, and this meal tasted so incredibly good.  

We ended the day after dinner with a prayer by Rev. Hatch. He prayed for those in power to ensure that the citizens will get the medical attention they so badly need, and a healthy water system as soon as humanly possible. Our local churches have been generous, but we are still committed to a $4,000 contribution to the development of two reverse osmosis filtration systems to be built amidst the underserved population of Flint. Clean, uncontaminated water will be made available free of charge to anyone who needs it.

If you want to help with this project, you can donate directly to Woodside Church at This is a joined United Church of Christ and American Baptist church in Flint. 

Love with Courage,

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Building Bridges between Oak Park and the West Side of Chicago

I’m inspired by what has transpired among the Community of Congregations these past two years. We have prioritized cultivating relationships with people of faith on the West Side of Chicago. Rev. Sally Iberg deserves our collective gratitude for presiding the past two years. The conversations at our Annual Meeting with clergy leaders in Austin and West Garfield Park were a blossoming of our collective work. 

At our Annual Meeting, Rev. Cy Fields expressed appreciation for our mutual interest in building bridges between the Community of Congregations and The Leader’s Network of Chicago’s West Side. Rev. Dr. Acree invited us to participate in the immediately critical project to transport water to Flint Michigan and flag this humanitarian crisis. Rev. Dr. Hatch described the acute differences between police interactions on either side of Austin Boulevard and the need for reform in Chicago that respects the dignity of all people.

I love their call to see us together as “West-Siders.” We are neighbors after all. While we may want to ignore the many social challenges to our east, there is tremendous love, wisdom, and hope among the people, especially people of faith. These pastors are just three of the thoughtful, dedicated human beings with whom we can cultivate relationships. 

I am embarrassed that I served here at Unity Temple for eight years before cultivating relationships beyond Austin Boulevard. There’s a tremendous cultural pull to turn away from our neighbors to the east and focus on what is familiar. 

Four and a half years ago, I and members of my congregation at Unity Temple began breaking through this invisible but very real emotional barrier. We’ve come to know many good people, some of whom have very different life experience--and all of whom share similar life commitments. 

When we cultivate honest relationships, we are better together. We can identify what common interests we have and how we can all grow together as we work toward common ends. For example, after getting to know several men in their 30s and 40s and learning how they received long prison sentences for non-violent crimes, their stories inspired me to join them in restorative justice efforts. In one campaign with a coalition of people of faith, we successfully advocated for legislation for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to seal their records four years after doing their time. It didn’t make the news but it affected many lives. However, many challenges remain: the need for economic opportunity is essential; good education is critical; the opportunities for mentoring children and adults abound.

I don’t know exactly what we, as the Community of Congregations, will “do” in the coming year, but I believe we need to begin with relationship building. I look forward to focusing on activities that provide us the opportunity to engage our West Side neighbors, allowing us to listen to one another about our hopes and passions, our fears and dreams.

Might your congregation want to build a relationship with another in the West Side?Rabbi Max Weiss and Oak Park Temple hosted Pastor Marshall Hatch and his choir from Mt Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at a Friday evening worship service. There’s a relationship in formation here. 

I’d love to hear how other congregations are creating relationships with others. Are there youth groups that get together? Choirs? What community service or social justice work is being supported and informed by bridges of faith communities?

May we rise to the challenges and opportunities before us, engaging the vision of the Community of Congregations. May we discover the gifts of building bridges with Chicago’s West Side and deepening in relationship. 

Rev. Alan Taylor is the Senior Minister at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the newly installed president of Community of Congregations