Places as far flung as Flint, Michigan and Freetown, Liberia found advocates at the UMW Water Rally on May 16 at General Conference.
Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area
Dirty water … toxic water … stolen water … problems found only in the Third World? No. Problems across the whole, wide earth.
Women from Liberia, Michigan, Oregon and the Philippines were present on Monday, May 16, to speak of the ways lack of fresh water affects families in their part of God’s world.
A crowd of 150 people gathered in the plaza across from the Oregon Convention Center to cheer, ring bells and hear the problems and the solutions these women raised.
Their witness, hosted by The United Methodist Women, began with a prayer by UMW leader, Harriett Jane Olson: “God, we pray that our hearts be moved, our fingers and feet be enlivened and our minds fixed on doing your work in this world.”
She was followed by Nichea VerVeer Guy, also of the national leadership team, who pointed out that her home state of Michigan is surrounded by 1/5th of the fresh water on the planet. Guy noted that the task at hand is no less than conquering global abuse of water resources.
In addition to the basic need for water to survive, other “intersections” between water and environmental, gender and economic issues were voiced.
“What can we do when our home is being ruined?” asked Rose Farhat from Liberia. “We can’t use the river for drinking, washing or fishing.” She noted promises made by American corporations — the building of clinics, water treatment, employment opportunities – that have not been kept. Farhat said that “people are depending on the church to obey Jesus to do these things for the least of these.”
“Something is wrong with this picture when people are fishing in polluted waters in Liberia and drinking water out of bottles in Michigan,” Bishop Julius Trimble declared. “We must make it clear, between Freetown and Flint, that water is a right.” He concluded by saying that the “common good must not be sacrificed on the altar of power.”
Trimble passed the microphone to his colleague, Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey, whose episcopal area includes Flint, Michigan. She outlined the realities that have kept the city in national headlines since last November. Poor decisions made on the basis of budgetary concerns have damaged infrastructure and delivered contaminated water (including lead) to families for the past two years. She credited the United Methodist congregations in Flint and the United Methodist Committee on Relief for prompt action during the emergency. “The biggest concern is with the children who will be living with the effects of this for generations to come,” Kiesey explained. The lifestyle, livelihood and health of families have been seriously compromised in a city already suffering from violence and poverty.
Two more witnesses, one from Mindanao and the other from Portland shared the reality that water issues span the continents. The Filipina woman called herself a, “climate refugee,” whose rights were stolen by “water thieves” and corporate monopolies. Efforts to reclaim the Portland Harbor and “demands for a full, clean river,” were the focus of remarks by local activists.
Back at center stage, Harriett Olson asked, “What are we going to do about this?” and offered several actions. General Conference delegates were encouraged to act positively on legislation dealing with environment and water. She urged attendance at this summer’s Mission u that offers a study on Climate Justice. “Find out the water issues in YOUR community,” she said. The public voice needs to be heard. You can make a difference in the place that matters most.”
Delegates present from Michigan could quickly grasp the water rights issues. “It’s scary to know that the issue is so close to home,” said Jackie Euper, Lay Delegate from Detroit Conference. “I think of Claudia Bowers.” Claudia is a Reserve Delegate from Detroit Conference who lives and works in Flint. “We were in Haiti together last November,” Euper recalls. “When Claudia told me, ‘I live in a Third world city,’ that really touched me.”
Alex Plum is a Reserve Lay Delegate to General Conference. His father, Pete, is the Water Emergency Coordinator for the Crossroads District of The Detroit Conference. Alex came away from the rally saying, “What’s happening in Flint and in Detroit (where city residents in water bill arrears are having their water disconnected without regard to their disability, age, children, or health needs) is the product of a society more concerned with profit and efficiency than the health and wellness of its people.” Expressing pride in the church for such witness, Alex concluded, “The water rally today is one more example of our church’s prophetic witness against the forces of evil and systemic injustice.”
“This rally makes me feel more committed and dedicated to water rights and preservation,” said Nichea VerVeer Guy, Lay Delegate from West Michigan Conference. “We in Michigan sit on so much of the world’s resources. We are in that state for a reason. This gets me all fired up because I want to go back and keep the work going.”