FLINT, Mich. -- The First Presbyterian Church of Flint sits majestically along the historic cobblestone streets in the core of the city’s downtown area.
The grand, Gothic limestone structure with huge Tiffany stained glass windows and cavernous interior was erected in 1929 and spans a block and somehow seems to age the area’s much younger, yet dilapidated skyscrapers.
Just a few blocks away is the much, much smaller The Muslim House, a single-family home that was transformed into a mosque in 1996. It begins where the cobblestone ends, marking the end of revitalization efforts and the local college’s territory. It blends in with the surrounding homes, except for the tarp covering a leaking roof and a sign donning the mosque’s name in green.
Though the mostly white church and predominately black mosque are in most ways dramatically different, they both share a common passion and mission -- to help residents struggling with the city’s much-publicized water crisis.
As city and state officials struggle to find a way to furnish residents with clean water, religious organizations have been the leading forces in helping to inform and provide the community with resources when government solutions may have presented obstacles.
Across the city, more than 35 churches have joined in the effort, providing everything from water to baby formula. A key caveat to their help, they said, is that unlike the city, the churches have never required recipients to produce identification.
“Churches have always been the back bone of this community,” said Kim Skaff, Director of Women’s Ministries and newly appointed “water coordinator” at First Presbyterian.
Drinking water became contaminated in April 2014 when the city changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River to save money. Failing to treat the water with corrosion inhibitors, lead from aging pipes leached into the city’s water supply, causing elevated levels of the metal in drinking water and creating a serious public danger.
In January, the city declared a state of emergency. Soon after, President Barack Obama declared it as a federal emergency.
At First Presbyterian, Skaff said the church integrated water distribution into its weekly meals for the homeless. Its kitchen must use bottled water to prepare meals for the 150 people who regularly show up, because the lead level in water in the church is too high to operate a commercial kitchen.
This week, the church is hosting 45 students from Howard University in Washington who are helping with the water crisis in Flint as part of their Alternative Spring Break program.
The Muslim House’s main mode of help is to distribute water, which it normally receives from others Islamic communities around the country, Imam Hanafi Malik said. The mosque, which has only 100 members, began distributing water on the corner outside of the mosque six months ago, long before the city began its efforts.
It also makes water deliveries to the elderly, Malik said. The imam said he can’t keep enough water at the mosque because of the demand.
“We don’t hold water,” he said. “We give it away that day.”
Unlike the city, which only allows residents to take two cases of water per day, the mosque does not limit the number of cases people take, he said.
“We give people what they need,” he said. “If they need 10 cases, we give them 10 cases.”
Just three weeks ago, the mosque gave out five truckloads of water, 180,000 bottles, in nearly five hours with the help a variety of faith-based organizations.
On Monday, Howard University students, donated and handed out scores of cases of water in conjunction with the mosque.
St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church also helps residents and it houses two organizations that are also contributing to the effort, Michigan
Faith in Action, a multi-faith assistance and resource center, and Catholic Charities of Genesee County. Michigan Faith Action goes to the communities to determine and help with their issues.
“Imagine getting ready in the morning without turning your faucet on,” said Sharon D. Allen, resource and fund development director, using herself as an example.
“I have to microwave and boil pots of water for my bath and to wash my hair. I have to use bottled water to brush my teeth.”
Tens of thousands of Flint residents go through a similar process every day, she said.
Since the final week of January, her organization has delivered 50,000 bottles of water, Allen said. Faith in Action also canvasses neighborhoods every Saturday and Sunday to record need for baby formula, water, filters, wipes and hand sanitizers, she said.
The organization keeps a ready supply of the products stacked along the walls of several of the church’s rooms.
Rapid response teams deliver the number of requested items directly to homes, which reduces families’ reliance on bottles of water, she said.
Language is a barrier to the process in some neighborhoods, Allen said. Consequently, the organization needs more canvassers who speak Spanish to reach the Spanish-speaking communities they serve.
Marybeth Paciorek, secretary of St. Michael’s, said helping the community has always been part of her church’s mission.
“Water is just a new thing,” Paciorek said.
Paciorek said despite the church’s relatively small congregation, its downtown location makes it hot spot for community outreach.
Many of their current parishioners live outside of Flint city limits, she said. Still, they continue to provide food, clothing, and now, water.
“All of the churches have stepped up and done all they can do.”