By Shea Howell
September 25, 2016
This week a parade of preachers swept into the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners. They were protesting drainage charges about to be levied across the city. Preachers called for a “moratorium on drainage charges.” They were “appalled” at the “ungodly” charges. They said they were “called to be here by God” to demand an answer to the question of “why should we have to pay for what comes from God?”
This was a sad display of what has become of our many of our local churches.
The obvious question is simply “Where have you been?” For more than two years, community organizations have been demanding a city-wide conversation to develop policies reflecting the basic understanding that water is a human right. All human beings should have access to safe, affordable water.
Where were the voices of preachers as 3000 households experienced shut offs every week? Where were these preachers as organizers established water stations? Where were they as people of faith blocked the shut off trucks from leaving the garage? Where were they as children went to schools to wash up and brush their teeth?
Where were the preachers when home after home faced foreclosure? Where were they when the elderly workers of the city bore more than 70% of the bankruptcy burden? Where were they when the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was turned into a regional affair, almost certain to guarantee greater burdens for the city?
Self interest, not care for the community, seems their only motivation. As a result, their protests are hollow. They offer brittle pronouncement, uninspired by faith or compassion.
Certainly some of our congregations challenge the money changers, the powers and principalities. But most have been silent in the face of an increasingly brutal division between the small, whiter and wealthier downtown and neglected neighborhoods. Most have been silent as violence escalates. Most are content to collect offerings, closing doors to chaos and pain.
This is not by accident. More than 30 years ago, right wing think tanks realized that gatherings of people of faith were a powerful force for justice. Step by step they began to develop policies that pulled churches and synagogues away from radical visions.
In reaction to the Civil Rights movement, right wing leaders developed a form ofconservative religious politics, using the cover of religion to mask white supremacy, homophobia, and the desire to dominate women. In reaction to school desegregation, for example, Christian academies sprang up, ultimately laying claim to public dollars through charters and vouchers.
Churches were pulled toward conservative stands through money. In 1989, President George H. Bush introduced the idea that social services should be provided by “points of light.” This was followed in 2001 when his son, George W. used executive powers to circumvent long held divisions between church and state. Under Bush II faith based initiatives became a top priority. Churches were tied into federal and foundation dollars, providing programs that had once been offered by governments. Now public funds not only provide direct services but money to construct, repair and maintain buildings. Religious leaders learned being silent was the best way to keep dollars flowing. Detroit is reaping the effects of this silence.
Meanwhile, a few days after this shameless protest, two young artists faced a judge. They were surrounded by supporters and love. William Lucka and Antonio Cosme are charged with felonies for painting “Free the Water” on a Highland Park water tower in 2014. They say it time to resist destruction of our neighborhoods, and to build more conscious communities. Preachers would do well to listen to our Artists.