by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you you appointed pastor of St. John Vianney Parish?
Father Tom: I was appointed pastor for St. John Vianney Parish in 2005 by Bishop Carl Mengeling. He wanted me to keep the only Catholic school in Flint open at all costs. St. John Vianney was merged with St. Agnes, St.Lukes, and Sacred Heart in 2008. And now I am pastor of five clustered parishes in Flint: St. Matthew, St. Michaels, St. Marys, All Saints, and St. John Vianney. Bishop Earl Boyea launched the "Faith in Flint" initiative in May of 2015. We now have a team of priests and deacons working together to meet the needs of the Flint community.
Gordon: In some ways, Flint has been visited by nearly as many plagues as Egypt at the time of Moses. First was the loss of the auto industry jobs, Then the major poverty, homelessness, .skyrocketing drug use and crime, and Flint was called one of the most dangerous US cities in which to live. Then the water was poisoned with lead. How have your parishioners responded to these challenges?
Father Tom: Flint has been in decline for many years. Once General Motors closed Buick City, the Chevrolet plant and A.C. Delco; the city went into a death spiral. There are not enough tax dollars to make up for this loss of industry. The population continues to go down and if possible people move out and find jobs elsewhere. Many who remain in the city do not have the means to leave. I am deeply grateful to the many parishioners who still chose to worship here in Flint and their dedication not only to the Catholic community, but the greater Flint community.
Gordon: When did you first learn, of the lead poisoning crisis and how did you address this problem to your parishioners?
Father Tom: The difficulty of knowing exactly when we knew the water had lead in it is not the point. Right from the beginning when the water was switched to the Flint River we began to receive boil water notices due to high bacteria counts. The water was rust colored and people knew something was wrong, but the state agencies assured us that the water was fine. It was not until the fall of 2015 that we began to know that high levels of lead were in the water. The Catholic Church in Flint has been one of the main sources of water distribution. Catholic Charities gives out 4000 cases of water a day. There are also four other points of distribution operated by the Catholic Church. Obviously this requires volunteers to help and many of our parishioners have done so.
Gordon: Please provide our readers with an overview of your work with Michigan Faith in Action.
Father Tom: Our Catholic churches are part of a group of faith based communities called "Michigan Faith in Action." (This group was formerly know as FACT, Flint Area Congregations Together.) We try to work together to bring pressure on our political leaders in order to meet the needs of our community. We do not endorse candidates or parties and that is why we as a Catholic Church participate in this organization.
We need to work with the other faith based communities in Flint without getting caught in the political quagmire that has plagued this city far too long. We make changes based on research and going to one house at a time and asking our citizens what they think and desire. From that research we try to draw a consensus for action in our community.
This is complicated by the fact that the answers for our community are coming to us from the state and federal level. We have forgotten that democracy works best when it is practiced at the grass roots level. In fact, the people who truly need to be heard do not have the means or the will to go to city hall or the state capital because they are simply trying to survive the day.
Gordon: Are there any suggestions that you may have on how our readers can help your parishioners?
Father Tom: We do need help, but please understand that this water crisis is overwhelming. People with good motives want to help and now. But please understand that this water crisis is simply one more obstacle that we must face and we need your patience and continuing support for the long haul. What we are facing will take years to understand. There is no substitute for knowledge and presently I am hearing a lot of people who seem to know the answers. I can only say that the Catholic Church will be here in Flint for the long haul. Please keep us in your prayers. And if we persevere in prayer we will stay together for the long haul.
You persevere in your prayer you will stay will us for the long haul. You will get to know us. And we will get to know you. And from that love will flow a sincere effort to serve the Lord in our brothers and sisters of Flint.
Gordon: We ask our readers to keep your parish and the city of Flint in their daily prayers Profiles in Catholicism will continue to keep our readers updated on these challenges in future issues and ways of assisting you.