Sorting by

Skip to main content

I’m Looking at You, Well-Drilling Christians

By January 14, 2016 18 Comments

Theresa Latini is taking a short break from her rotation on The Twelve. While she’s away, we will be hearing from Kate Kooyman. Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Witness in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Kate.

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.                 Psalm 114:7-8

Can I get something off my chest?

For a long time, I’ve been a little annoyed by the Christian community’s fixation on clean water. I know that makes me sound like a horrible person. But I felt like every time I said “social justice” I found a church pointing me to their twenty-five wells in Africa—and because of this unilateral focus, they wouldn’t be able to consider signing a statement about immigration, or sending an email to Congress about climate change, or hosting a book study on The New Jim Crow.

Just to defend myself: I love water. I shower in it regularly. I made some into coffee a few minutes ago. When I lived in Honduras, the lack of drinkable tap water was the experience that most regularly reminded me of my privilege. I believe water is a human right. I believe water is a sign of God’s providence for a thirsty people. I care deeply about the senselessness of kids with chronic illness due to water contamination, girls who can’t go to school because they have to trek for miles to a well. Truth be told, I’ve dropped some cash into the clean water coffers myself. Water is a justice issue.

But it has felt to me like “mission: clean water” has done a great job of comforting the American (white) church. But it has not done a great job of teaching us the demands of “doing justice.” It has allowed us to contribute from our vast resources of money and education and cultural superiority to those poor folks across an ocean who have corrupt leaders, inexplicable poverty, and so few tools to solve their own problems. But it has not taught us to question the systems that have created such a need.

The clean water trend feels to me like The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. When problems are far away, they’re easy to understand and easy to solve. When they’re close by, they’re complex and intractable. Foreign leaders are incompetent. Someone I voted for is probably just misunderstood.

Kooyman 2There’s a water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint is fifty-five percent African American. Flint is forty percent poor. And Flint’s water is poisoned. By corrupt government leaders in Lansing. The clean water crisis isn’t far off—it is very near. And it is a crisis deeply rooted in racism, in poverty, and in politics. While the solution might not be to drill a well, the need is no less urgent.

I know that Rachel Maddow is outraged. Michael Moore is mobilizing. Hillary’s got a statement out there. But for all our faith-talk about the spirituality of water, for all our glossy pictures of smiling kids at flowing spigots in the African sunshine, I have heard precious little from our churches on this unfathomable breach of trust—the literal poisoning of the well—in our own land.

This is not an issue for liberal pundits—this is an opportunity for people of faith. We know a God of water: the Spirit hovered over it, the Creator separated it, the Restorer placed a rainbow over a flood of it, the Deliverer let the people pass through it, the Savior was baptized in it, and we all came to new life bathed it it.

And justice rolls down like it.

How to get involved:
• Rev. Kristi Kiel (Resurrection Reformed Church in Flint), suggests donations to Carriage Town Ministries. “Every school, nursing home, homeless shelter has been profoundly affected, as they must find clean water for drinking, cooking, hand washing, etc. Carriage Town Ministries is one of the largest ministries for the residents of the city, including two shelters with residential programs, transitional housing, a daily meal program, a food pantry, etc. This crisis has strained their financial resources for many months.”
• Take a critical look at your congregation’s mission and outreach programs to see if there’s a way to more faithfully address systemic injustices both near and far. Consider getting some help from Communities First Association, a local Christian Community Development Association ministry, or the Christian Reformed Office of Social Justice.
• If you’re in Michigan, call your state legislators and ask how they plan to hold the executive branch accountable for this failure of trust.


  • Ruth Boven says:

    Kate, thank you. Your prophetic voice rings true and pokes at my complacency. Thanks for providing info on getting involved.

  • Tom Hoeksema Sr. says:

    Preach it, sister. Thanks for these words, both poetic and prophetic; and thanks for giving me suggestions for actions, both pragmatic and political.

  • Blaine Newhouse says:

    Wise and important words Kate! Your perspective is a healthy corrective and a needed prophetic voice in a contemporary church cultural that prefers to travel or send money oversees to do ‘mission work’ rather than engage in less glamorous work in our own back yard. While I would not wish to diminish the challenges of global poverty and systemic injustice, I also pray for a church that is as eager to engage issues of racism and injustice and to do ministry with those on the margins BOTH globally and LOCALLY.

  • Eric Barnes says:

    Thank you for your words. Convicting and informative.

  • RustbeltRick says:

    Just a quibble, but if it weren’t for liberal pundits, we’d never have heard about any of this.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks, Kate. I was thinking similar thoughts. My Rotary Club gives a certificate for a clean water filter in a 3rd world country as a thank you gift to our speaker of the week. I’ll check into a donation for the Flint water project as an alternative or in addition to this project. I miss seeing you and appreciate your pics on FB.

  • Kate- I am grateful for your passion here. As a person who has dedicated a large amount of life to clean water, I am confused by some of the assumptions you made in this post, the largest assumption being that helping in our own home communities and helping in places on foreign soil are mutually exclusive or somehow in conflict with each other. These are not exclusive but actually complimentary actions. In my own experience, When a person is drawn into an international opportunity to serve, it positions them to more confidently serve people in their own community.

    The second assumption is that distance trumps complexity. Anyone who has taken seriously an active role in “social justice” whether that be as part of the “trend of clean water,” …which is hopefully not as feeble and fleeting as the word, “trend” would imply, or in the local soup kitchen or as a member of a large government agency providing ARVs for HIV+ individuals on a global scale, will tell you that the assumption of simplicity vanishes quickly. There are no simple “social justice” issues. Each is as complex as the human condition with all its physiological, psychological, and spiritual mysteries, as every social justice issue is actually a human issue at it’s foundation.

    It may be more true to assert that when problems are far away, it is much easier to think that we understand them, it is much harder to actually understand them. The 40,000 foot perspective is not often a luxury or an asset.

    I applaud your desire to elevate the local church to be more engaged in the needs of the people in close proximity. To disparage the churches role in helping in places across oceans can only be done at the expense of the people who live in those places across oceans… people who have stories and value fully equal to the person living next door. It is one of the best parts of serving a God who is not bound by space or time. We need not be bound either but be equally provoked to act.

    Peace and grace,

    • Randy Buist says:


      I think Kate’s point was that many people of faith give money to drill wells, all of which is good, except that it does not lead to a faith that necessarily integrates issues of social justice. Many people give money out of a desire to create change somewhere else, but this not mean that attitudes about social justice issues relevant to their daily lives change in any way.

      To her point, giving money to drill wells seemingly has little connection to supporting immigration reform in America. In fairness, many of Donald Trump’s supporters are evangelicals. Yet, the biblical text confronts the politics of this man at every almost turn… I don’t ask this out of malice but rather real concern. Neither do I point this towards you any more than anyone else who might read this: How has such a significant part of the American church missed issues of justice that dwell among us?

      In pointing them our faults, we are not disparaging people. Rather, I content we are being faithful to the biblical narrative by calling for a deeper faithfulness that requires even greater change within us and both individuals and as faith communities.


    • Kate Kooyman says:

      Hey Dan, thanks for your comment and push-back, and thanks for your notable and important work on the issue of clean water. I’m really sorry to hear that you felt I was disparaging the work of global clean water action. That wasn’t my intention.

      It sounds to me like we’re saying that same thing, actually. My point in this piece is that doing justice demands deep engagement in complexities (not oversimplified and easy engagement), and that global passion should naturally lead to local passion, and that all humans are image-bearers and deserve dignity (near and far). I think we agree.

      I hope the clean water passion isn’t a “trend” — clean water is a deeply felt need all over the world. My fear is that it’s a trend, and I’m pointing to the complacency about Flint as something that points to that fear. Hope I’m proven wrong.

      • Greg says:

        Yes! It is the well-drilling Christians who are the real problem in Flint! How brave of you to call them out for their myopic ministries. Harumph.

        OK, snark aside, I just don’t understand this post. Or why an editor or a better angel didn’t stop it from reaching publication. Absolutely, we should be outraged at the situation in Flint; just as we should be outraged on a whole host of fronts locally and globally. But why are fresh-water projects the target? Is justice a zero sum game? Is the life nearby more precious than the life far off?

        In Tanzania, women walked 6 hours per day to fetch water as dirty or worse than that which comes out of the faucet in Flint. Think about that: 6 hours and it’s their only option. Along that journey women are preyed upon by wildlife and men with untoward intentions. In the village where we drill, we’ve nearly eliminated infant mortality cause by dysentery.

        And when I say “we,” I should clarify that it is a true partnership. Village elders decide where to drill; local drill teams do the labor; and community members participate in maintenance and upkeep.

        Freed up from the long commute for polluted water, young girls are now able to go to school. Local schools are now bursting at the seems, so we’ve helped build more classrooms, provide more desks, hire more teachers, and build homes for those teachers in the local villages.

        Next, and still closely related, we look at health care delivery.

        Your post, with all respect to you and your passion, isn’t prophetic. It’s petty. It’s reactive and raw. It contributes little to the needed dialogue; rather, it just adds to a din of distraction. I encourage you to consider taking it down.


        • Kate Kooyman says:

          Respectfully, Greg (I do appreciate the comment and push-back), I think you may have misunderstood my point. I wasn’t recommending anyone stop being passionate about clean water — just that those for whom this has been such a passion be consistent, and be vocal and passionate advocates for Flint, too. Even though the passion for Flint would require a political response.

  • Lisa says:

    Is there anyone who can directly help people RIGHT AWAY? I’m in Phoenix and want to donate so that someone can supply them with water SOON. I spoke with Everton the manager at Carriage House Ministries a few minutes ago and they only support the homeless community, which is obviously very important and I plan to support them, but I want to help the rest of the community in addition. The CFA and CCDA are based in Chicago and I couldn’t find information about them helping Flint.

    Are you aware of someone mobilizing to buy mass amounts of water so that the people directly affected by this can start getting clean water right away?? Thanks for any help you can find! 🙂

  • Kate Kooyman says:

    Thanks for calling Carriage House, Lisa. Here’s a link from Michigan Radio about where to direct help.

    From what I understand, because this is getting more attention, there’s more water available through the National Guard, etc. So I think that most of the immediate need for drinking water is being met (often through donations like the one you’re talking about). So there is a long-term need, even if the immediate needs are (right now) being met. But maybe someone from Flint would have a better read on-the-ground.

    And of course meeting the immediate need is only part of it — we also have to talk about the underlying injustice of how this happened, and hold those who lied / ignored it accountable.

  • Marc says:

    Please don’t get me wrong, there is no one who deserves dirty water but I think a complete story deserves a mention of how, and who, got Flint in this position, and it wasn’t the Executive branch. Flint voters have elected an actual felon for a mayor a couple times back, another one was recalled because he left the city in a criminal financial mess, the (D) Emergency Manager who signed off on the questionable decision to pull drinking water from the Flint River (?) seems to not be blamed, the Administration’s EPA knew about this for a year but did nothing but they’re not mentioned. Your only political call to action was to tell our State Reps to pressure the Gov to more action.

    • Kate Kooyman says:

      I’m all for getting the full story out, Marc. I read a lot of the points you make here in an article in the National Review which portrayed this as a partisan issue — as if the media was fixating on Republicans when really it’s the Democrats who are to blame. I disagree that it wasn’t Snyder (and the branch he controls) got us into this. Also, it seems that the EPA didn’t exactly do *nothing* — they right away put pressure on the Michigan DEQ to do its job, cause that’s how the system is supposed to work. But of course that’s just how I interpret the facts I’ve read.

      I’m fine with there being a robust conversation as we learn more about who knew what and did what. I certainly don’t know everything.

      Feel free to suggest other action steps here in the comments if you think I’ve left something important out.

  • Rachel Haxtema says:

    Thanks Kate! This is really grea- I get very frustrated when the college students I work with want to “do one thing” or simplify their engagement in the messy world. I want to challenge them to see all these complexities but I also know how that feels and how frustrating the work of complex justice can be.

    I also feel there is a similar
    “trend” among some Christians to focus only on rescuing girls from sex trafficking without engaging in complex economic, gender and worker justice issues. (Not to mention the problems with savior complex and problematic Christian theology around what ‘saving’ someone means!)

    Thank you especially for calling out the racial justice aspect of the Flint story as well.

  • That’s some harsh truth right here! One might agree and other may not! I am still trying to do my duty towards changing the world a little everyday. That’s all it takes. Everyone doing a small thing towards a better future!

Leave a Reply