No license? No water.
That’s how Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest Hispanic congregation in Flint, got involved in water distribution back in January.
If you’re undocumented in Michigan, you can’t get a driver’s license. So, whatever you think of that, in the early days when the National Guard opened shop in five of Flint’s fire stations, that meant no water.
Note: As of the time this article was written, anyone who lives in Flint can go to a fire station and get water, filters, and testing supplies without I.D. You will only be asked to supply an address.
“We found about the Flint, Michigan thing when the I.D. situation came up,” Daniel told us. “People were asking for I.D. to get water, some of the undocumented people were afraid to go then. We haven’t heard any stories right now of that happening anymore, but there’s still a lot of misinformation.”
Upon arrival, I was greeted by Victoria, a long-time member of the church who had been responding to my messages on Facebook. After a few pleasantries, we headed from the rectory to go meet the water distribution team. The parking lot was crowded as a luncheon was just letting out.
“About half our congregation is from Flint,” Victoria explained as we crossed the parking lot. “And they’re about 80 …” she hesitated. “Seventy-five to 80 percent Latino.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe, just north of the city’s actual limits, has been a part of the Flint community since 1957. They have also been a key player in the response to the water crisis. They supply water, testing kits, baby formula, diapers, soap, and body wipes for those who don’t trust the EPA’s official line on bathing in the city’s water.
As she introduced me to the team, I was surprised by a couple things that I learned right up front.
First of all, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been cutting back on their hours. Their water distribution services are currently available Wednesday and Saturday from 9–6.
“You probably saw all the distribution sites on your way in. People have other places they can go.”
It was true. On this lonely corner alone, there were two other sites in easy walking distance.
“There’s water everywhere,” one volunteer joked.
According to another volunteer, Juan, they’ve gone through 216 pallets so far—not including the water at the very beginning that they received loose in the back of two semis.
When they started out, the church was going through four–five pallets in a single day. Today, that number is down to just one or two.
And, contrary to my expectations, water hasn’t been in short supply. For the time being. That being said, a number of organizations are currently saving money for the end of the summer when the state plans to discontinue water distribution in the city.
For some perspective, let’s go back to the source of the city’s ongoing water woes: its damaged pipes. As of April 19, only 33 pipes have been replaced out of an estimated 15,000 needing replacement. If you’re keeping tally at home, that’s another 14,967 to go. In less than four months.
All Roads Lead to Flint
“So, where are you getting the water from? Is it individuals, organizations … ?”
The distribution crew laughed.
“Where do we start?”
While they readily cited two primary sources—Chicago and the UAW (United Autoworkers union)—it’s more complicated than that. Donations have come from all over Michigan and as far away as Memphis and San Antonio. Another drive is currently underway nearly 1,500 miles due west of Flint in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
What they had just shared was surprising on the level of, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. I just learned something new.”
What they were about to share was surprising in a visceral, reactionary way.
A group of militiamen from Minnesota traveled here, where the Latino community started organizing to provide water to Flint’s undocumented community, to deliver water.
“They told us that for them, the most important thing was for people to have clean water. It’s a human issue,” Rick told me. “It’s amazing. All the politics aside, people need water to survive.”
Talk about a model for our leaders to follow—both here in Michigan and in Washington, D.C.
We moved from the curbside water distribution site into the main event room. The luncheon crowd had thinned. Water was scattered around the room.
A Way Through the Water
Inside, Deacon Omar Odette came over and introduced himself.
“We’re lucky to have guys like Juan here,” the deacon said. “He’s helped organize and entire system.” He gestured behind him at the various kinds of water behind him.
You may be thinking, ‘Kinds of water?’ I was thinking the same thing.
“Yes, we have distilled water and baby water as well,” he explained.
At the look on my face, Victoria laughed and said, “I had never heard of it, either.”
“It’s triple-purified,” Juan explained.
Earlier in 2016, the entire room had been filled with water with nothing but a walkway to the kitchen. In my head, I pictured a 21st century Moses leading his people through it.
With “rental season” coming up in a congregation of 400 families—meaning lots of quinceaneras and weddings—it’s been a top priority for the church to get some of the space freed up.
With space at a premium, overflow facilities at All Saints Church on Pierson road have helped alleviate the crunch.
Omar went on to explain that one of the biggest issues in Flint right now is trust.
“That’s an issue that we’re probably going to be working on for the rest of my life,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do in preaching about things being safe eventually.”
Emphasis on eventually.
“So, it sounds like you have enough water right now. What are you asking for? How can people help?” I asked the deacon.
“Well, from the Christian standpoint, prayers first,” he told me.
In addition, they are also asking people to consider donating water jugs and pumps so that the jugs are easier to install. Jugs have the added benefit of being reusable.
Being open daily has also run up a bill for the church. They’re currently seeking funding to help cover the daily $80–90 it costs to pay for heat, water, and electricity.
As we made our way back toward the parking, Victoria told me about the congregation’s importance in the community.
“This is where you come to participate in your culture, speak your language, eat your food.”
This includes La Tortillera (“The Tortilla Factory,” as Victoria said) on Tuesdays, where people gather to make homemade tortillas; community meals on Sundays with “anything Mexican you can imagine”; an annual festival in August; and two dances troupes and a mariachi group.
For a community that was initially struggling to be heard and helped, the water crisis has brought a silver lining.
“This has been an interesting experience,” Victoria told me. “It’s made the community wider. It’s opened some doors.
“We’ve seen how many people want to help. People you don’t think would help, do. The world is a better place than you think. We’ll get through this and still be the same, strong community.”