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What to Say about Water Inequity in Michigan: Useful talking points for Clergy

A Message from Robert Bruttell, IFLC Chairman and Religious Leaders Forum of Metropolitan Detroit Convener, and Imam Steve Elturk, president of the Islamic Organization of North America

No one in the world chooses to live without water. None of us can imagine living without water.

At the December 2018 Religious Leaders Forum meeting, we decided to have this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend be “Human Dignity and Water Justice” weekend. While the Religious Leaders Forum is not advocating for one political solution or polity over another, we do see it as a moral imperative and call for transparency in policy.

If you are a clergy leader and plan to take up the topic of water justice in your sermons, we have compiled the following facts and talking points on the issue that we feel so strongly about, as it is a moral crisis affecting our city and state.

  • Thousands of people in Michigan and in Detroit in particular are caught in a cycle of poverty. They truly cannot afford water. No workable plan has yet been undertaken that allows these people to have the human dignity that affordable water would provide.
  • This problem has remained unresolved for many years. It was serious enough that the United Nations took an interest and attested to the desperate condition of thousands of people in Detroit whose God-given human dignity has been stolen by a wider community that for the most part has been indifferent to these insufferable conditions. The faith community is obligated to focus attention on this grave moral issue.
  • Pastors in the City of Detroit will readily testify to how many people have sought help, have received help from their home churches and continue to need help.
  • Congregations and interfaith organizations that sponsor individual Detroit Public Schools testify to the fact that they are having to provide hygiene products for students and the schools themselves are providing showers for students who experience water insecurity.
  • Water insecurity unavoidably leads to housing insecurity.
  • Detroit Water & Sewer claims that they are addressing the problem. Nevertheless, there is more than abundant evidence that the problem has not been solved in Detroit. It persists. It steals people’s human dignity.
  • Assistance programs do not solve the problem when water is not affordable in the first place. At best, payment programs and other assistance only postpone the water shutoff for a few weeks. Poor people unable to afford water must choose between water, medicine, food, heat and lights. It is a desperate cycle exacerbated by the lack of water affordability.
  • These people live under the constant inhumane threat of having their water shut off.
  • The most common argument heard for continuing to threaten poor people with cutting off their access to life-giving water and human dignity is that providing water has a cost structure that must be honored. Delivering water has costs. However, there are many costs in society where those costs are made reasonable for those of limited means.
  • Transparency is a serious issue – or more accurately – the Lack of Transparency is a serious issue. We know that thousands of people are at risk of shut-offs. Detroit Sewer and Water reports that are a year or more old tell us that. But there is no data on how many people currently are threatened by shut-offs.
  • How many people have been helped sustainably? There is no current data available nor is there any attempt to provide ongoing metrics on this issue.
  • Many religious leaders consider the lack of transparency unconscionable. There are solutions.
  • Ironically, a water affordability plan that was drawn up for the City of Detroit some years ago is the basis for water affordability plans being implemented by Philadelphia and has influenced water affordability programs being implemented in New York and Chicago. Why not Detroit? Many religious leaders and pastors say it is indifference to suffering and the lack of political will on the part of our leaders who go home to warm showers and clean, safe, affordable (for them) water every day.

We hope you find these talking points helpful. It’s time for our political leaders in Michigan and metropolitan Detroit to go to work and find a solution.

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