Running for Clean Water in the U.S.

This week I heard about Erin Brockovich travelling to Stockton, CA--which forced me to put pen to paper on an article that I have been putting off. Here is the punchline: Flint is an outrage, it is not an isolated case, and while resourced churches pour money into clean water projects in Africa, we do little to nothing about poisoning our own, right here, in the US.


A few years ago I ran a half marathon with World Vision, a Christian relief agency. I was running to raise money to build wells in Africa (and because I wanted to see if "runner's high" was a real thing - spoiler: it is). A little money can go a long way on the African continent and the big hearts of my friends have led them to continue running. (I, on the other hand, stopped running and starting writing snarky blog posts.)

On February 14th of this year, a number of my friends ran for clean water on the African continent with World Vision at the LA Marathon. World Vision has a strong base of runners connected with evangelical churches in the area. Indeed, the runners drew enough attention to be asked to pray at the start of the marathon, with Dodger's Stadium in the background. I have no doubt that their efforts are making practical, daily improvements to the lives of families on the African continent.

And yet the LA Marathon has been smacking on my conscience ever since.

The story about Flint's water crisis came to national prominence in January of 2016. Having collaborated with environmental justice organizations for some time now, I was somewhat unsurprised. Our nation's infrastructure needs investments and Flint is a majority people-of-color, rust belt city--only 39 percent of the city's population is non-Hispanic white. So, this environmental disaster was not a big surprise given our nation's racialized public policy.

So, it has been smacking on my conscience because while the church in the US was focused on clean water in Africa in February, it had no clear response to toxic water in the US in January. As a member of the Christian church in the US, we are lacking relevance; members of the church might say that we have lost our saltiness. With some important exceptions, we are not dealing with our own water problems while focusing on water projects abroad. Both matter but one is overlooked.

Why do we tackle problems in other nations but not in our own?

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Hak Joon Lee, writes about Christian global ethics in his book The Great World House. He reflects on the social-theological ethics of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and concludes that for global leadership to go right, global leaders must be rooted in a local community (Dr. Lee, of course, says it more elegantly--but for that, you will have to read his book!). It makes sense: It is in communities where we know each other; where we have to make tough negotiations with friends, across organizations, in coalitions; where the rubber hits the road. It is where there is accountability.

In my mind it is sort of like taking the speck out of our own eye before trying to take the log out of another's.

I know, I know: It is more cost effective to do water projects on the African continent. There is no denying it. But to dramatize things a bit: What would it be like to starve your children here in the US, because it is cheaper (and perhaps easier) to send money to feed children across the globe?

We have organizations dealing with water quality and environmental racism here in the US. Jesus People Against Pollution in Mississippi, Communities for a Better Environment in California, WE-ACT in New York, and others. Organizations like the Community Water Center in California's Central Valley have been working for clean water in an official capacity since 2006. Flint is not the only place with contaminated water; it is not an isolated case.

When it comes down to it, I think we lack the will to partner locally on these issues. Doing so is complicated work that requires contending with politics and enduring prolonged bureaucratic processes. The organizations I named above have to engage in politics because they are trying to overturn our racially biased systems (why else would poor communities of color disproportionately bear environmental burdens?). These organizations also confront us with the reality that some of us in the US drink clean water and some of us drink poisoned water, some of us breathe clean air and some of us do not, some of us live next to toxic waste and some of us do not.

The simple fact is: It is, indeed, easier to write checks for clean water halfway across the globe. But does that make it okay to do nothing domestically?

It has taken me too long to write this article because of the respect I have for my friends who raise money for clean water on the African continent. In fact, please help them towards their fundraising by clicking here. World Vision estimates that in a place where people have to travel on average 6 km to bring home 5 gallons of water, $50 will provide clean water for one person for a lifetime. That is pretty remarkable. Once you are done clicking there, please also click on the links of the organizations above and support them, too, and get involved in their work in your own community.

And then let's form a team to run a half marathon to draw attention to the need for clean water in the US? What do you say?