Churches in Flint are Rising to the Challenge
“You’ll never see this on the national news,” observes Tom Mattiuzzo, senior pastor of Riverside Tabernacle (AG) in Flint, Michigan. “We are one of dozens and dozens of churches, of every conceivable denomination, who are handing out water, day after day.”
And Mattiuzzo isn’t talking about his church handing out cups of water to those passing by. For the last six or seven months, the church has been distributing bottled water along with food items through their pantry to 800 to 1,100 families a week. Over the last few months, however, the demand for water has skyrocketed as the severity of the lead problem has been investigated and communicated.
Flint made national news for the disastrous contamination of its drinking water supply. When the city switched to the Flint River in April 2014 for its water to save money, they didn’t account for the high levels of chlorine in the water, which corroded the iron and lead pipes used to carry the water and essentially started poisoning residents.
“The last few months, we have been distributing at least 40,000 pounds — a full semi and sometimes two — of water a week,” Mattiuzzo says. “It’s been coming in from all across the country, including from Convoy of Hope [which has already sent 10 truckloads to Flint, with more loads en route], in bottles, jugs, cases, two-gallon jugs — you name it.”
Riverside Tabernacle has been able to handle the distribution of so much water without too much additional effort, Mattiuzzo says. He explains that about 14 years ago, the church began a very modest pantry that was comprised of a cupboard with some basic food items in it. Year after year, that pantry ministry increased in its size and numbers of people served.
Today, a small army of volunteers from Riverside and a few other churches help distribute food to as many as 1,100 families every week. “We had a nice distribution apparatus already in place,” Mattiuzzo says, “so that has made the process of distributing water much easier than it could have been.” And even with all that Riverside is doing, Mattiuzzo says there are larger churches in Flint doing as much and even more.
Faith Tabernacle, led by Pastor Bruce Garner, is an independent Pentecostal church located on the eastern edge of Flint. The church has a strong relationship with Riverside Tabernacle, has one of the largest Royal Rangers programs in the state, and has also been heavily involved in water distribution. Faith Tabernacle’s Outreach Pastor Jeff Ryal says that the church of about 400 members has been distributing a semi truckload of water every seven to 10 days.
Ryal, who also pastors a new congregation called The U, which meets at Riverside Tabernacle, explains that Faith Tabernacle operates a school (preschool through 12th grade) as well as a daycare. He says that the church distributes a lot of water to Flint residents with children in their programs, but that they also go out into the neighborhoods and deliver water.
“This has been a great opportunity for us to share living water with people,” Ryal says. “We have been given inroads to people’s homes and lives, which have given us the opportunity to have conversations with people and pray with them as well.”
Mattiuzzo, who voices his appreciation for the National Guard and other agency’s efforts in the area, says that in reality, the water emergency has become the Church’s finest hour in Flint. “It’s a wonderful thing to see — so many churches cooperating and working together to meet the needs of people,” he says. “The people of Flint are seeing the best of the Church; they’re learning that we truly care about them and their needs!”
Ryal says he regularly receives calls thanking the church as well as words of appreciation expressed in person. “Every Saturday we have a team that goes out and makes deliveries to homes in Flint,” Ryal says. “With every case of water, we always leave some literature that includes the church’s contact information and a few encouraging words written on it.”
Although Mattiuzzo believes that the city is being abundantly blessed with the donations of water pouring into the community, he says that he doesn’t believe there is a “quick fix” to the problem and that six months from now they’ll still be distributing water.
Yet despite the possibility of facing an extended recovery, Mattiuzzo believes that there may be a silver lining in the crisis.
“Flint is a city that is ranked anywhere between one and five on anything bad — poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, violent crimes, child abuse, murders per capita — and the list goes on,” Mattiuzzo says. “But now the churches in Flint, which are strong, are working across denominations. We have so many platforms to better our communities and serve the people here. I believe many people are going to experience, perhaps for the first time, the compassion and love of Christ for them.”