Let It Roll Down

By Tom Airey, Editor, RadicalDiscipleship.Net

The 1st of a two-day report from Detroit.
Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.
Wendell Berry

A couple of weeks ago, less than 48 hours from the time we moved in to Southwest Detroit, my wife and I visited the water payment station on the west side. When we arrived, about a hundred people (every single one of them African-American!) were lined up to make payments or inquire about a payment plan. Each and every one of them were there because the Detroit Water & Sewage Department had sent them notices that their water would be shut off if they did not pay their bills in full or work out a water payment plan with the city within the week.

I met Rafael who inherited his home a year ago, along with the $1000 in water bills. He has watched his water bill dramatically rise over the past few months and he now owes more than $2000 on it. He can’t afford the payment, nor does he have enough for the 10% down payment. He gave his address, hoping to arrange something with DWSD, sitting on the curb waiting to be called into the building on that humid 93-degree afternoon. The security guard told me that he would need to come up with at least 10% by September 3. Or else.

This water business in Detroit is filled with painful irony for Lindsay & I, suburban refugees from Southern California. Our native land, 2500 miles away, is in the throes of horrific drought. Precipitation has been virtually non-existent these past few years. Rivers, lakes & reservoirs are drying up quickly. However, you wouldn’t know it if you took a walk through our old neighborhood in Orange County. Lush lawns. Clean cars. Long showers. Swimming pools. Residents hosing down driveways!

To add further insult to injury, the residents of South Orange County, with a 2.1% African-American population, have long been committed to an ideology that boasts of the laws of supply & demand that will lead us all to the Promised Land. Yet, with a supply of water that has been dwindling rapidly, few pay heed to voluntary conservation efforts as the price of water remains inexpensive (living off a “modest” public school teacher’s salary, we paid less than 2% of our income on our water, gas & electric combined).

Meanwhile, out here in the Rouge River Watershed, smack dab in the middle of a region that contains 20% of fresh water reserves on the entire globe (supply!), residents endure harsh rate hikes & shut-offs, while corporate clients, with lawyers in tow, have the luxury of delaying their payments to contest their water debt in the tens of thousands.

Indeed, the city of Detroit, struggling through bankruptcy, must creatively figure out how to pay her bills. But justice & mercy demand that we never do this on the backs of those struggling to survive, as the EPA declared 40 years ago (that no resident of this nation ought to be charged more than 2.5% of their income for water). Christian communities, in both urban & suburban contexts, ought to verbally stand behind the EPA’s standard because it is, at the very least, what biblical justice (in regards to natural resources) calls for.

From manna in the wilderness to the command to care for the orphan, the widow and the immigrant (or “the least of these”) to bread broken & shared and wine poured out for all, God is defined as the One who provides abundantly for all, commanding that those who claim God’s name do the same. Radical discipleship, in a land flowing with milk & honey, calls us to repent of a capitalist mindset (where there are inevitably winners and losers) to be converted into a people who tirelessly advocate for a system that works for everybody.

In addition, the insidious racial component of how water is distributed must be confronted. When more than 95% of the folks at the water payment lines and at the soup kitchen are of a darker hue, we’ve got a severe moral malady. What we are witnessing, and what so many are suffering, in Detroit is a Jim Crow water infrastructure, in addition to perpetual de facto segregation in public education, transportation, jobs, health care and healthy food.

2500 years ago, in a land far away, the prophet Amos demanded that “justice roll down like water,” a refrain Dr. King consistently echoed 50 years ago in our own country. Unfortunately, Orange County, CA & Detroit, MI are exhibits A & B, showing just how little justice is actually rolling down in regards to water.

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