June 10 2015 12:00 AM

Diocese of Lansing asks for help for struggling city


That many of Michigan´s cities are struggling is well known. Detroit is the nation´s poster child for a city in decline. On the west side of the state, Benton Harbor is near collapse. The state imposed emergency managers on Pontiac and Highland Park.

But what I didn´t realize was the utter disaster that is Flint. The problems — and that´s too mild a description — were graphically presented this month by the Diocese of Lansing and its leader, Bishop Earl Boyea, who is asking Catholics in the 10 counties he oversees to support the parishes, ministries and schools serving the people of Flint.

It´s not just another church campaign. It´s a mission. As Boyea said unveiling the program, “We don´t have to look across the nation or around the world to see great need.” From Lansing, we just need to look down the road.

The diocese´s monthly magazine, Faith, produced a special June issue to kick off its Flint campaign. The statistics are depressing.

• Of working-age adults age 16-64, 49 percent did not work at all over the past year.

• Sixty-two percent of Flint´s children live in poverty. This compares with 24 percent of children in the state, which itself is a disgraceful number.

• Forty one percent of Flint residents live in poverty compared with 17 percent of Michigan residents.

• Nearly 40 percent of residential properties are abandoned.

• Flint was considered the most violent city by the FBI from 2011 to 2013. It is now the second most violent., after Oakland, Calif.

And so it goes.

The magazine recounts the glory days in Flint —a bustling downtown, Sen. John F. Kennedy at Atwood Stadium during the 1960 presidential campaign, a sprawling Buick City. In 1960 it had 200,000 residents; as of 2013 there were 99,763. The decline of the auto industry in the city is jaw dropping. In the 1950s, GM employed over 80,000 people in Flint; now it´s 7,500, the magazine reported.

What Boyea wants is help from his parishes to support church institutions that provide basic services to the people of Flint.

“It´s something that we needed to do. We can´t get by on maintenance. Too many of our parishes are just holding on,” he said in an interview last week. Rethinking how to deal with the city´s needs after recent retirements, Boyea has assigned a team of four priests to spearhead his Flint initiative. It´s an approach used by the church in Lapeer County in the 1920s — a call to action by a team of priests, he said. “This has been in my memory and mind. We are operating with that background.”

The Catholic Church operates five parishes and an elementary and high school in Flint. The schools are education beacons in a community where just 42 percent of 3rdgrade students are proficient in reading and a quarter of students drop out of high school. Its Powers Catholic High School boasts that it has had more National Merit Semi-finalists in the past 30 years than any school in Genesee County. Flint needs this school.

The church´s Center for Hope provides needed social services: assistance with housing, soup kitchens, clothing and household items, substance abuse counseling and more. The church also operates the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, which offers women job training, employment and as sistance with homelessness and domestic violence.

In a city with Third World problems, the church helps hold together the very frayed safety net. Boyea hopes that the special edition of Faith, sent to 65,000 homes in his diocese, a letter to all Catholics and publicity will raise awareness about Flint´s programs among Catholics and the general public, leading to financial support, volunteers and prayer.

Certainly there is opportunity. People can serve meals or sort clothing donations, mentor in employment preparation classes, tutor at the St. Luke N.E.W Life Center or adopt a student at the St. John Vianney grade school.

“Things like this take a long time. But we are shooting for the long goal. We need to improve the cooperation of people in Flint and Genesse County, and acknowledge that in the wider area we are all responsible for one another,” Boyea said. The diocese has established a website for those answering its call: FAITHinFlint.com.

While the Catholic Church has always committed itself to social justice, the message been clouded by the strident pronouncements of senior leadership. Pope Francis is taking a more welcoming, more pastoral stance than his predecessors, less finger wagging about sexual issues or liberal nuns.

Boyea´s outreach is grounded Pope Francis´ declaration of a “Jubilee Year of Mercy,” which expands on calls to deal with poverty and ensure economic justice.

The Lansing Diocese’s mission to Flint may, in fact, be a rallying cry for Catholics who have drifted away from the church or for the young people who a recent Pew survey found are rejecting organized religion. Certainly it´s an uplifting message.

“It´s a sense of commitment to other people,” Boyea said “You not only do something for some, but you are benefiting. We just want to get people engaged.”

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