As you are well aware, today is the national observance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day. It is critical that we remember that Dr. King was a pastor. It was his faith that prompted him to challenge the prevailing oppressive political structures of the day. But I must confess that leading up to this particular MLK Day, I have been underwhelmed by a sense of ennui. It is fueled by a sense of “holy discontent.”
I was a little girl in the sixties and the early seventies. In 1972 my hometown Gary, Indiana was host to the National Black Political Convention. Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, hosted the gathering. He was elected in 1968, making him the first Black mayor of a major American city. Approximately, 8000 people poured into Gary. My father was a police officer. He was a member of the security detail for the convention. Every evening he would come home with a different autograph from political luminaries and pastors. I sensed his excitement as he shared every detail with my mother at the dinner table. Dad was hopeful. His enthusiasm was contagious!
Better days followed in terms of civil rights gains, job equity, and access to education. Today, we are facing a civic and moral crisis as we look at the erosion of rights, equity and access. Out of sheer necessity, the Black Lives Matter movement mirrors the Civil Rights movement. We add names to a deplorable registry of African Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of police officers, vigilantes and race baiters.
Macro and micro-aggressions weigh heavy on my soul. They are legion. Our elders call them “the Black Tax.” Just when I think I have had enough, the Flint Water Crisis makes the news. As Marvin Gaye sung, “It makes me want to ‘holla’ and throw up both my hands.” According to US census data, Flint is 56.6% African-American and 37.4% White. The city of Flint suffers economic hardship. The median income is $24,834 and 41% of its population lives below poverty level. As a cost saving measure in April 2014, the city of Flint opted to stop using Detroit as its water source and use the Flint River instead. Since that time, the city of Flint has been besieged with boil water advisories after testing positive for contaminants. That same year General Motors stopped using Flint’s water supply because it rusted the machinery.
Residents complained about the smell, taste and the brown appearance of the water only to be assured that it was safe for drinking. Pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha noticed the impact on her patient’s health. She began to collect data. She found her patients had dangerous levels of lead exposure. Lead poisoning’s impact is irreversible.
Irreversible. Ruminate on that and its implications for a moment. When did access to water become a civil rights issue?
CNN quotes Dr. Hanna-Attisha:
“If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for generation and generations to come, it would be lead,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It’s a well-known, potent neurotoxin. There’s tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts.”
The negligence is arresting. Some are calling the Flint Water Crisis an act of genocide.
Sadly, Flint, Michigan is not the only place in our country where the water supply is compromised. I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. There is a community just outside of Dallas, Sandbranch, Texas that has not had running water in years. There is a thirty plus year old article highlighting this plight. I learned of this community in September 2015. The water supply is so compromised that its only use is to flush toilets. Like Flint, that community is largely African-American and economically challenged.
I do not pretend to understand the political intricacies of both communities that bring them to this particular point in time. Some would argue the political situation is none of our business. But I know this much: They are without water. Every person should have access to safe, clean, healthy water. Injustice is our prophetic business. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King responded:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Today, some will observe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with programs dedicated to honor his memory and the Civil Rights movement. Others will roll up their sleeves and participate in a day of service. Explore ways in your congregations or spheres of influence as to how to respond to the water crisis. In addition, please consider making a contribution to your denominational relief agencies to help in secure water in both places.
Holy discontent can give way to cynicism, if we are not mindful. Commemorating Rev. King and all he stood for stands as a reminder that we are not to lose hope.
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