By Megan DeBruyn
It has been four years, one month, one week, and one day since Flint, Michigan has had access to clean drinking water.
The crisis began back in 2014, when Genesee County implemented a new pipeline designed to deliver water from Lake Huron to the residents of Flint. Shortly thereafter, the city announced that fecal coliform bacterium had been detected in the water supply and issued a water boiling advisory to neighborhoods on the west side of town. The situation continued to escalate into early 2015, when it was announced that the water could be causing serious health issues and an increased risk of cancer.
Enter Pastor Rob Butler.
The water crisis was already three years in the works when Pastor Rob, his wife Amanda, and their two children relocated to Flint to accept a call to serve at West Court Street Church of God. “Poverty and crime were likely a greater concern as our family felt that we had to be immersed within the community,” Pastor Rob says. “I can’t tell you how many times I panicked giving the kids baths and they would either swallow water unintentionally or purposely try to drink it.”
Despite the obvious concerns that living within the Flint city limits posed for Pastor Rob and his family, he maintained faith in God’s calling. “All these elements caused concern, but there was no hesitation. The poverty, crime, and water crisis were merely works of the enemy to stall the message of abundant life,” he asserts. “If anything, our work was easier to define in coming to Flint because the enemy had long been at work.”
Amanda echoed the sentiment: “Why would anyone not want to be a light in a dark place?” Together with the West Court Church congregation, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Initially, the church served by distributing water, then later transitioned to a “Point of Distribution” site, allowing the state to take over distribution of water on the church grounds for three years.
And then, on April 6 of this year, the governor announced the end of the free bottled water program in Flint, which was part of a $450 million state and federal aid package. So West Court Church did what they do best, and found another way to serve their community.
The Neighbors First Water program was birthed out of Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Of Neighbors First Water, Pastor Rob says, “It was a no-brainer to decide that if our neighbors were first, then we would continue to be a beacon of light into our community and find a way to be a distribution point for clean water.”
In the two weeks following the start of the program, West Court Church served over 700 families and distributed nearly 2,500 cases of water. It wasn’t long before other organizations—both locally and across the country—wanted to get involved, too.
Afya, a not-for-profit organization based out of Yonkers, New York, sent twenty-two tractor-trailers packed with clean drinking water to West Court Church. “We did not seek them out, or even know who they were before getting the phone call,” Pastor Rob says. Although the gesture was grand, it presented a challenge: where to store all the water?
According to Rob, it took only one phone call for a local business called Complete Towing to step up, offering five forty-foot containers that would hold 80 percent of the tractor-trailers’ supply. Not only that, but they also pledged to donate a fork-truck and pallet-jack for unloading purposes.
This domino-effect of generosity has spurred countless other churches, organizations, and families to get involved in the Neighbors First Water effort. “When God opens a door, we might be overwhelmed by what pours out,” says Pastor Rob, “but it’s true that he doesn’t give us more than we can handle, because he handles it all when we are obedient to his calling.”
Even though West Court Church’s efforts are going above and beyond to satisfy the hole left when the government cancelled its clean drinking water distribution program, they are still struggling to maintain longevity for their ministry. “We want to at least be distributing water as long as there are still water lines going to homes that need replaced,” Pastor Rob explains. And currently, there are still an estimated 12,000 eroding pipelines in Flint, including at Pastor Rob and Amanda’s own house.
Pastor Rob is currently looking to host churches and organizations to collect bottled water for distribution, as well as to sustained donations and potential corporate sponsors to continue this ministry and purchase water through their online giving page. “Our hopes are that as we look for these vital partners, outside organizations will see our long-term response and see a program that can sustain distribution that is bringing hope to a city entangled in this trap,” he says.
“These opportunities, [including] the water crisis, have provided our congregation with space to have the vital conversations and Scripture study that has really given some meat to our identity as a body of believers journeying through faith together,” Pastor Rob reflects. “Together, we will see Flint transformed for the glory of God.”
Are you interested in getting involved with bringing hope to Flint? It’s simple! If you live in the area, you can help in distributing water at West Court Street Church of God on any Saturday from 12:00 NOON to 4:00 PM. You can also host a water bottle drive or fundraiser to donate directly to the church. Otherwise, consider partnering financially with West Court Church and become a sustained giver. For more information, visit www.westcourtchurch.org/give.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.