Grappling with US Poverty: Continuing to Listen to Flint, Michigan (with Dr Shannon Polk).

In March 2017, I attended the Society for Pentecostal Studies’ annual scholar’s conference themed “The Good News of the Kingdom and the Poor in the Land.” Set in Appalachia, Tennessee the delegates gathered together to think about how Christianity intersects with poverty and marginalization.

As a representative of Hillsong College, Sydney Australia, I’d prepared a paper on some recent work I’d done in the Pacific in my (other!) disability role at the Centre for Disability Studies, The University of Sydney. Sponsored by UNICEF, we had worked with an indigenous-led organisation in Papua New Guinea. At the conference, I talked about a Pentecostal church I had encountered. The way these Pentecostals negotiated disability and poverty made me wonder perhaps we also could reframe how we think about the Spirit and healing in our Australian churches.

But the real beauty of academic conferences is hearing from people that you might otherwise never meet. And the standout presentation for me at this conference was from Dr Shannon Polk. We have stayed in contact since then, with her giving me permission to tell you a little about her and her world.

Shannon is an African American woman, a distinguished lawyer, and a licensed Assemblies of God pastor in Flint, Michigan, USA. She is involved in a host of philanthropic endeavors, as a board member but also a leadership consultant. She is a brilliant, compelling speaker. She spoke about the challenges to Flint, Michigan from the perspective of a resident, and the organizations she works with.

The issues in Flint Michigan were broadcast globally in 2017-2018. For a summary of the news reports that ensued, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/us/flint-water-bottles.html . A timeline of the crisis is also here: https://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html. But then most media coverage stopped.

To give a basic explanation, after some financial issues, in 2014, the city officials decided to start piping Flint River water into the city, rather than the more expensive, and treated, water from Detroit.

Following this decision to use the river water, it was found that children in Flint had high levels of lead in their blood, and there were also two spikes in Legionnaire’s bacteria. To date there have been ninety local cases of Legionnaire’s disease, with thirteen leading to fatalities. The residents’ own pictures showed orange water which was clearly undrinkable. But City officials did not warn residents about the various health dangers.

Things got worse for the residents of Flint. In April 2018 the government announced it would stop providing free bottled water to residents, despite the high levels of lead still in the water. The problem as residents described it was that lead could still be acquired through any of the city’s old pipes, and so therefore some areas and houses were more affected than others. Contractors estimated at the time that about half of the city’s pipes had been replaced.

What did this mean? Well, those who could not afford to buy bottled water were essentially being asked to drink whatever water was coming out of their house tap. This meant that poorer neighborhoods were more likely to display higher levels of lead poisoning.

But surely this is all now fixed? No. The reality is, although the media attention has died down, the situation continues for the residents of Flint. In February of 2019, 30-year old Jassmine McBride died.

It is considered by many to be America’s largest health disaster in recent decades.

We can think that clean water is a fundamental basic human right in a rich, Western, nation like the United States . But it turns out, it’s not so basic. In Australia, various Aboriginal communities have also had their water cut off by the state due to “financial” reasons, with undrinkable water found in various towns (see: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-19/families-plead-for-action-over-uranium-in-drinking-water/9879748) . In other words, it is increasingly possible to live in a third world conditions within a wealthy country.

It’s easy to mischaracterize people facing challenges in life. We particularly like to think of them as powerless and needing help. What I’ve learned from Shannon was that there are strong, educated people in this city who have been working hard to change things. The church in the city is engaged.

And so, I thought it would be good to listen to a woman who is doing incredible things. I asked her to do an interview (below!) so Christians could become more socially aware.

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Tanya Riches:         First up, what would you want us to know about you?

Shannon Polk:        My passion has always focused on bearing witness with those who are marginalized and bringing light and justice to their situation.  I see the single woman, the childless couple, the African-American and I work to make sure the church and the community sees them too.

The best work I’ve ever done is being a mom and I couldn’t have done that with without a great husband.

Tanya Riches: What do you think that people need to know about poverty in the USA?

Shannon Polk:  Poverty in the US is increasing at an alarming rate – more than 1 in 8 citizens live in poverty. The UN sent Philip Alston, an Australian law professor, to report on the depth of poverty in the US and he was startled at what this visit revealed.  Almost 20% of all children in the US live in poverty and that rate is 30% in some states. Mr. Alston’s report revealed that poverty is not limited to the stereotype of Black and Brown folks who are lazy and uninterested in work. There are 8 million more white people living in poverty than Black folks and many people find themselves in need of government assistance because of automation and downsizing in their industry.[1]

Tanya Riches:         What do you love about Flint, Michigan? What is your town like?

Shannon Polk:        Tanya, I love the people of my city. We are so resilient and optimistic despite the challenges the city faces. Our city sits at the crossroads of two extremes, not unlike many cities across America. The wealth divide is real and is very visible in my community.

Flint, Michigan is a community of 90,000 people. We are home to 3 major hospitals, 3 colleges and universities. We are culturally rich – art museum, orchestra, theaters, and other performing arts.

My town resembles so many of the Midwestern rust belt towns whose legacy of major art museums, orchestras, libraries, and universities are juxtaposed against [its] infrastructure disinvestment, aging schools, and a disappearing middle class and increased poverty and illiteracy. We are simultaneously asset-rich and economically poor.  At one point, Flint had the highest per-capita income of any city in the USA. Now, we consistently rank in the top three poorest cities in America according to the US Census.

Tanya Riches:         How long has the water been bad?

Shannon Polk:        Since 2014.  For over four years, the residents of Flint have dealt with unpotable (or undrinkable) water.  The contamination has included dangerous levels of lead and Legionella. A dozen people died from Legionnaire’s disease during that time; those deaths have been scientifically linked to the water crisis.

Tanya Riches: What did you do to get attention on this issue?

Shannon Polk:        I used the power of social media to spread the story on Twitter and Facebook in addition to reaching out to my denominational relief arm, Convoy of Hope to ensure on the ground support.  Also, I volunteered with local organizations like Jack and Jill of America and The Links, Inc and my church, Riverside Tabernacle to assist with the distribution of water and other supplies like water filters and lead-mitigating food.

Tanya Riches:         When did people outside start realizing there was a problem?

Shannon Polk:        When the US national media began to cover the story.  The New York Times article really captured the severity of the problem: the fact that the problem was man-made, originated with the state government, and that there had been a cover-up at the local, state, and national level (EPA).

Most people still don’t fully understand that the state took over the city government and the Governor of Michigan made the decision to switch the water source as a cost-saving measure. Lives were sacrificed for dollars. Also, the state government officials told people after the water source was switched that it was safe to drink the water. Residents were intentionally misled by the government.

After months of ingesting contaminated water, Flint citizens started posting pictures of the water on Facebook and Instagram and major media outlets picked up the story.

Tanya Riches:         There’s been a lot of media attention on the issues with water. What has been the city’s response?

Shannon Polk:        Many of the pipes have been replaced. However, Mayor Karen Weaver had an impasse with the Governor over the excavation process.  Mayor Weaver preferred a process where the pipe is excavated completely so workers can identify if the pipe is lead or copper.  The governor’s approach, hydro-excavation, looks at a portion of the water line, which could possibly lead to pipes being misidentified as copper when it is actually lead.  According to news reports, there are still 14,000 lead pipe lines that still need to be replaced.

The Mayor also mentioned the need for fixture support.  Items in residents’ homes have been damaged from the corrosive water such as hot water heaters, ice makers, etc.  These items were not included in replacement costs.  How can a widow on a fixed income pay to have her home’s internal pipes replaced in addition to her damaged fixtures.

The State of Michigan closed the bottled water distribution sites, even though all of the pipes have not yet been replaced.

However, local churches stepped up to provide alternative sites. These sites need water but also volunteers to help get the water to senior citizens and other people who need physical assistance getting the water in their homes. Based on public outrage, 3 of the sites were reopened for 4 hours weekly.

Tanya Riches:         What is it like living in Flint? How do people feel?

Shannon Polk:        The water crisis is just the latest crisis to hit the community but it is not the first.  People are tired of being tired but we are also hopeful.

People are living with trauma.  The whole community has learned to function through intense social and psychological trauma around a natural resource that poisoned the community. Dr. Mona Attisha has described it as a multiplicity of toxicities. Having lived in the community by whole life, I share her belief.  When I was in high school, Flint was the murder capital of the nation.  Now we are the poorest city in the nation.  How do you survive growing up with such high levels of crime, violence, poverty and now a major public health crisis.

People are fatigued and beleaguered, but yet we remain hopeful.  Dr. Michael Eric Dyson was speaking about the nation recently and he stated that Black folks had seen worse times in America and that gives us the resiliency to push on a little further each day despite the challenges.  I think the fact that Flint is a predominately African American city means that the residents possess that same resiliency about the outcome and direction of our city.  We’ve seen economic downturns, major job losses, environmental injustice, and racial disparities before.  The same help that brought us through the last time and every other time will bring us through again. We are a people of faith and we know our God is faithful.

Tanya Riches:         How have the local churches gotten involved?… and what do you think the role of churches is in Flint, Michigan?

Shannon Polk:        The churches have been the backbone of the residents during the crisis.  Pastors and their congregations have been volunteering to host and distribute water, filters, and testing kits.  Churches have opened their doors for community meetings, answered calls from residents seeking accurate information, provided food and other supplies to people regardless of their immigration status, provided shelter to families and preached the good news to hurting residents.  When the state of Michigan closed the water distribution sites, the churches opened their doors and told the residents come to us, we will assist you. Recently, First Trinity Church has partnered with Jaden Smith to provide clean water to residents.  People are donating bottled water as well as providing water jugs (firsttrinitywater.org)

Tanya Riches:         What is it like to take the pulpit at your church on the weekend? What things do you think about when you step up to lead the community?

Shannon Polk:        When I take the pulpit, I know that I am ministering to folks in the city and suburbs, those who are very well off and those who barely surviving.  Our church is in downtown Flint, and our congregation represents a wide variety of the residents in our city and county. I know that my words need to bring hope and healing to folks who are suffering from compassion fatigue and the trauma of living in sustained crisis.

I think about the kids in the congregation growing up like I did in an impoverished city with few opportunities. I consider the older parishioners who remember the city in its heyday and are baffled at the decimation of the city. I consider the singles and young families who remain committed to the revitalization of the city everyday by choosing to live in the downtown area. I think about what my mommy always said to me, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  God has richly blessed me and serving my community is what I must do.

Tanya Riches:         Did you ever think that the name of your town would be this famous?

Shannon Polk:        Well, there were always prophetic words about a spark coming from our city; however, I don’t think anyone imagined the spark would originate from such an epic crisis. People had heard about the films by Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine) but those films focuses on the economic devastation due to GM leaving Flint.  No one ever imagined a public health crisis of this magnitude in the USA, regardless of the poverty level or ethnic makeup of the city.

Tanya Riches:         We met at a conference on poverty… what do you think of when you hear that word? And do you think that people in Flint, Michigan are indeed living poverty?

Shannon Polk:        I think of my personal upbringing, being raised by a divorcee who worked every day but made less than 18K annually.  We were spiritually rich but financially poor. My mother made too much to money to qualify for most government support program. She epitomized the definition of the working poor.

Yes, I believe many of Flint’s residents are living in poverty.  I see it impacting the families that we serve through our church’s food pantry and the children that attend our youth services.  The poverty is financial, multi-generational, spiritual.  There is a sense of betrayal from the government that leads to an emotional poverty and feelings of despair.  This is why the church must provide a sense of hope in Christ.

Tanya Riches:         You are an incredibly articulate, legally trained leader. What do you think the church has to offer in situations like this?

Shannon Polk:        The church can provide practical support through connecting residents with agencies who assist with healthcare, temporary housing, and emergency financial assistance. Our church allows the agencies to set up information tables at our food distribution to ensure the families we serve have the knowledge they need to survive.

The church must unite against injustice. The pastors of the city publicized the water crisis, led rallies and marches, and initiated lawsuits to uncover the lead poisoning. This type of civil action was appropriate for the church because we were the only institution that the people still trusted.  As church leaders, we could act with integrity and provide accurate information to our parishioners and those who looked to the church for guidance.

By hosting informational forums, creating space for food pantries and water distribution, and meeting with the local, state, and national officials, the church reclaimed our space in the local community as those who rightly divide truth, provide for the widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor, and demand justice for the oppressed.

Tanya Riches:         How do you help the people of Flint, Michigan to see what God is doing in their town?

Shannon Polk:        We remind people that God was not surprised by the crisis, nor was He wringing His hands in disbelief. God used and is still using this crisis to bring His body together in unity.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Baptists, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God working side by side to help the residents affected by the water crisis.

We remind people that God uncovered the coverup. He never fails to hear a prayer and He will always answer. We remind people that improvements are happening, even if it’s occurring at a snail’s pace.  Like we say in the Black church, “Trouble don’t last always.  This too shall pass.”

Tanya Riches:         You’re an accomplished, and passionate woman of God. Who mentored you into the leader you now are?

Shannon Polk:        My greatest mentors have been my mother and maternal grandmother. They embodied Christ for me in a consistent, faith-filled way. I often joke that I learned the character of God from my mother because she was the same, yesterday, today, and forever. She walked in great integrity and was beloved for her faithfulness.  My grandmother taught me faith. She would always share her testimonies of God answered her prayers in times of crisis and how she stood firmly on the Word of God. She was always visiting the sick, ministering to her neighbors, and being the hands and feet of God.

There were two other women who also mentored me. My Godmother prayed for me to filled with the Spirit and my paternal grandmother taught me that all I needed in this life was salvation and education.

I often longed for other mentors but they didn’t come. I once heard Dr. David Ireland say that after many years of praying for a spiritual father, God told him not to look for one but to be one.  That resonated with my personal journey and I’ve adopted that advice.

Tanya Riches: Did you ever think you would be doing ministry?

Yes, I received the call to preach as a young girl. However, I was reluctant to pursue the call because I didn’t see any women preachers. Also, my mother firmly expressed her unenthusiastic support for my career in ministry.  Quote “We have too many preachers in this family.  Go get a real job.”  But God has a way of working things out in His timing and I’m grateful for the way He has orchestrated (ie delayed haha) my steps.

Tanya Riches:         How can people show you love, and/or pray for you right now?

Shannon Polk:        People can continue to show up for Flint through volunteerism, financial donations, and prayer. We need volunteers for youth and senior serving programs, medical and mental health support, water filter replacement, and water distributions. We need financial and in-kind donations for replacement fixtures and other items not covered by insurance such as hot water heaters and other home appliances.

Most importantly, we must have intercessors who are praying for restoration, hope, resilience, and resurgence of our faith, justice, and our economy.

———–

[1] Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Washington, December 15, 2017, https://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533&LangID=E

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