In 2015 residents of Flint lost access to clean water. From the beginning, the United Methodist Church has been at the forefront of relief and recovery efforts in the city. Here’s an update.
Senior Content Editor
September 23, 2020 | FLINT, MI – An encounter while unloading a truck full of bottled water five years ago is a snapshot of the United Methodist response to God’s people in Flint. Tommy McDoniel, the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, recalls the conversation he had, working alongside a mother, father, and son who had traveled from Ohio to lend a hand in the suffering city. McDoniel told the mom about the garden Asbury had started. “We keep thinking we need to expand and make it bigger,” he said. He reports the woman teared up and shared,
You don’t know how important that is. You see my son, this bright teenager full of promise? He had lead poisoning as a child. Doctors told us he needed the right nutrition every day. Not a day goes by that we don’t make sure he is eating properly. It looks like he is going to be a healthy adult someday, with no negative consequences. That’s why we are here. We know what it’s like to have a child suffering from high levels of lead.
“That,” McDoniel says, “was a sign that we need to do something bigger.” Then he adds, “That was a God thing. How did they pick Asbury as a place to lend a hand? How did the four of us happen to be standing next to each other, having that conversation as we worked?” The neighborhood garden started in 2016 today is called Asbury Farms, growing lead mitigating, nutritious food in 14 hoop houses in collaboration with Catholic Charities.
And that’s just one of many God things that have happened since the fall of 2015 when pastors and church members in the Flint Mission Zone of the then Crossroads District began to care for their community. Residents no longer had clean water to drink, to bathe in, or for cooking. Supplying bottled water, water filters, and education on their use was at the center of the Church’s efforts in those early months. With the help of The United Methodist Committee on Relief, Peter Plum was hired to coordinate the UMC’s response during the emergency phase. Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey made an appeal for funding that provided an opportunity for generous persons from around the state and across the country to contribute to relief.
By the Fall of 2016, Gregory Timmons was named Water Recovery Coordinator. Timmons worked closely with others in the community to continue to ensure water needs were met but also to develop initiatives addressing the poisoning of children’s bodies and the social fabric. As Timmons now moves into a full-time position as pastor of Calvary UMC in Flint, United Methodist response in the city is entering a new phase.
The Rev. John Hice, superintendent of the East Winds District, notes, “There’s great passion from every quarter of the Michigan Conference to care for the people of Flint. That’s the way it’s been from the very beginning.” Hice adds that “We are ready to turn a page.”
Dayne Walling, a member of Court Street Church in Flint, has served as a consultant to the East Winds District Leadership Team during this transition. Walling describes the ongoing cooperation among United Methodists in the city known as the Flint Mission Zone. “Rev. Hice established this framework for collaborative ministries in and around Flint, and now the strategy is bearing much fruit,” Walling says. Zone leadership includes appointed pastors and lay leaders of congregations. “When they realized all of the blessings God had bestowed upon us in each of our congregations and current separate ministries, then the focus shifted to how to join together and become more like the Body of Christ here in Flint,” Walling adds.
These churches, he observes, are “planning cooperative events and finding ways to share in each other’s gifts with a strong sense of urgency, because God’s love and grace are very much needed in our community.” Walling points to a critical development in recent months. Two United Methodist ministries – Asbury Community Development Corporation and South Flint Soup Kitchen – have joined. “Their unification,” Walling notes, “has created a sustainable and impactful ministry that is working with multiple Flint neighborhoods and partner organizations to improve health outcomes, offer employment training opportunities, and continue the community’s recovery efforts.”
Hice emphasizes the ministry horizon in Flint stretches far into the future. “This is not over. The sustained response is now the story. We are now entering a long-term recovery phase that will address ongoing trauma.” Yes, bottled water is still needed and is being distributed in three Help Centers around the city, two hosted by United Methodist churches, Bethel and Asbury.
Re-piping in the city is expected to be done by the end of this year. “Now we must deal with lifelong effects of lead poisoning and stress on daily living,” Hice explains. “The harm to cognition in kids, skin conditions, an uptick in violent crimes.” The superintendent notes that the pandemic has only added to the strain caused by the water crisis.
Hice builds on what Walling described as a consolidated mission. He says Greg Timmons, as pastor of Calvary UMC, will continue to focus on addressing violence, dissolution of family values, and homelessness. Hice adds, “The bulk of Flint recovery will be transferred to Asbury CDC, with a focus on production and distribution of nutritious food.”
“Here at Calvary United Methodist Church, we are down to the meat and potatoes,” says Pastor Timmons, as he talks about their work with Flint families. “It is easier to give a bottle of water. It is much more difficult to make sure a mother knows how to give a baby a bottle of milk.”
While the established Help Centers continue with the distribution of food and water, Timmons says Calvary has picked up on meeting those needs, as well, which have ramped up during COVID-19. “The County called and said one of the Help Centers didn’t have the infrastructure to do home delivery,” he explains. “Calvary had a driver, a van, and food.” They put wheels to meals for four weeks, and now Calvary continues with a Wednesday food give-away for nearby neighbors.
Timmons says the next challenges include housing, divorce care, issues in fatherless homes, and pre-natal care for mothers. “Families are suffering as violence in the homes is kicking up. People have not been trained to handle the stresses they have to endure from two crises, water, and coronavirus.” So, family ministries are the focus at Calvary UMC. During the pandemic, handling grief, death, and loss are even more significant issues than before.
“We have aggressive growth goals at Calvary,” the pastor asserts. “Number one goal is the saving of souls. We want to be a place for families to come to for assistance and to stay for worship.” Assisting them in program building are two interns, thanks to a Young Adult Grant from The Michigan Conference. Talyn teaches dance and helps communicate with families in the congregation and community. Nick’s focus is on online services. Flint Freedom Schools were not able to operate in 2020. Timmons regrets that but says, “We are not allowing ourselves to become stagnant and fearful. We are using this time to strategize and move forward.”
Timmons celebrates the involvement of these two 20-somethings. “They are in ministry but also they give us valuable input,” he notes. “They are shoring up Calvary’s infrastructure AND helping create a culture attractive to young adults.” He adds that Talyn and Nick are blessed by seeing the positive impact they can have with the church.
“I think the United Methodist Church is meeting real needs, feeding and supporting the people of Flint,” Pastor Timmons reflects. “But over these last five weeks, I’ve buried a 17-year-old drive-by shooting and buried 36-year-old, who overdosed on drugs. The church is the answer to such helplessness. The true and living Word is what we need to focus on now.” The man who has been involved with water recovery for four years concludes, “It’s great to give water, but let’s focus on getting the Lord Jesus Christ working in our community.”
Asbury CDC calls itself “A Community in Love with God, Each Other, and our Neighbors.” It is a worshipping community, a farm, a farm-to-table café, and much more. A vital part of the United Methodist relief and recovery since the water emergency began, it is now the new hub of the unified approach moving forward. The Help Centers and South End Soup Kitchen now come under the Asbury CDC umbrella.
Pastor Tommy McDoniel says, “As your outreach becomes more concrete in terms of services, you need to access funding that is difficult to come by within the traditional church structure. Creating a separate, non-profit enables taking on other kinds of partners.”
Asbury CDC is, according to McDoniel, “a non-profit that covers the city, not just a neighborhood anymore. We will expand from the east side to the south side and beyond, being diligent to grow our capacity reasonably. This provides United Methodist churches of Flint, a sister partnership that offers volunteer opportunities and services that you can’t provide just within a single church.”
The United Methodist Church is recognized as a valued partner. McDoniel states that both Asbury CDC and Bethel UMC have been designated Emergency Operation Centers by the State of Michigan. “It is a privilege and an honor that there is such confidence in us,” he says. Since COVID began, he receives weekly briefings from the governor’s office. Asbury collaborated with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office to do home “porch deliveries” of water and food to 1,400 households a week during the peak need. The Bishop’s Appeal covered the cost of running three trucks; the state covered the labor. Deliveries included fresh produce from Asbury’s winter family experience.
McDoniel offers a reminder. “Part of our response from the beginning of the water catastrophe is nutrition. Health care experts said there’s no cure for lead poisoning. The only antidote is proper daily nutrition, which will keep negative effects from manifesting in the behavior of children and teens.” MSU has provided counsel on crops to grow for this purpose. Asbury Farms, the legal name for the farming business of CDC, now has 14 hoop houses and is building three more. Pastor McDoniel reports, “We can grow $300,000 wholesale a year in produce. We employ three full-time crew and lots of volunteers.”
The Help Centers at Asbury UMC, Calvary UMC, and Greater Holy Temple serve 400-500 a week. “We run out of food and water before we run out of line,” McDoniel says. The state supplies food, a semi-load to each of the three centers each week. Nestle has committed to providing water until the re-piping of Flint’s water system is finished in November. McDoniel estimates the weekly water delivery to each center is currently 34,000 bottles. Home deliveries of fresh produce and cases of water continue from Asbury UMC to 50 households.
The South Flint Soup Kitchen, housed in the former Lincoln Park UMC, is now part of Asbury CDC following the appointment of its director, Pastor Maurice Horne, to Bloomfield Hills. Formerly a sit-down meal, the virus has prompted the change to bag lunches. Catholic Charities partners with Asbury in this ministry that provides 500-600 meals a week. Groceries are also given to families. McDoniel says, “Kaitlin, the new head of our Soup Kitchen, first came to the church because she needed to shoot an elevator scene for a movie. She ended up performing in the 2019 Easter musical. Then she was baptized last spring.” She came to Asbury as a food system professional, and “her testimony is powerful!” according to Pastor Tommy. “God is interesting,” he says.
Some future plans for Asbury CDC include a collaboration with Flint: Court Street UMC to offer Christian worship and Bible study at the Soup Kitchen location. “We’ll be offering spiritual food with the bag lunches,” McDoniel says. A trailer has been ordered for use next spring as a mobile market and Embery Café on Wheels featuring fresh produce from Asbury Farms.
Pastor McDoniel is excited about this re-organization of United Methodist ministries in Flint. “We feel blessed,” he reflects. “Organizations that grow out of the church don’t leave Jesus in the corner when we serve. We bring our beliefs with us.” Then he concludes, “Maybe the difference is that we don’t lead with, ‘Have you been saved?’ but with ‘How can I help you?’ When a person has been helped, we can share our faith with greater credibility.”
Dollars to work
Significant ministry requires significant dollars. D.S. John Hice is pleased to report an action taken by the Conference Council on Finance and Administration on September 21, 2020. “The Bishop’s Appeal identified two needs that must be addressed,” Hice says. “One was the immediate need of people in Flint for bottled water, filters, and education about lead-mitigating foods. It was also recognized that this would lay the foundation for long-term recovery needs that people would experience.”
Since Bishop Kiesey made the appeal in January 2016, distributions have been made from the fund for water, food, filters, and training done at Help Centers. While the emergency is past, suffering – skin rashes, learning deficits, and disruption of families – continues. “These issues,” Hice states, “will be addressed by consolidating missions under Asbury CDC” alongside the work of the Flint Mission Zone and congregations in Flint.
“CFA and the Treasurer’s Office of The Michigan Conference agree the emphasis will now be placed on long-term ministries that help the people of Flint.” A balance of $147,070 (Crossroads Water Recovery Fund/Bishop’s Appeal) is being transferred to the East Winds District Treasurer’s Office, where it will reside in the District Endowment Fund. Distributions from that fund will be traced by the Conference Treasurer until expended. An outstanding deficit of $49,070 will be reimbursed for expenses overseen by Flint Recovery Director Greg Timmons. Accountability and transparency will be maintained regarding future expenditures.
Hice comments, “Surely, all donors to the Bishop’s Appeal would prefer for the fund to be utilized for people of Flint in water-related needs rather than sitting in the fund. This administration of these dollars will advance the kingdom of God in a place of extreme need.” He continued, “This action reflected foresight and vision on the part of Bishop Kiesey and continued care and oversight by Bishop David Bard, CFA, the Treasurer’s Office, and those on the ground in Flint.”
After five years of service, the United Methodist relationship with the people of Flint moves forward into a new chapter of ministry. “I am very excited and satisfied that this is God’s will at work,” Superintendent Hice concludes.
“We need to do something bigger,” Pastor Tommy McDoniel said four years ago. Bigger things, God things, are coming in Flint.