Faith Green Timmons ’04STM is senior pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church of Flint, Michigan. Bethel responded swiftly to the city’s water crisis.
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Pastor and former journalist Faith Green Timmons ’04STM made headlines last September by interrupting Donald Trump during his speech in her church. He had promised to speak about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and when he segued into a campaign speech, she reminded him of his promise. Today, her priority is still Flint—its people and their quality of life, including water. She spoke with the Yale Alumni Magazine about her church, her children, and what Haitians think about US politics.
Y: When Methodist church authorities asked you to serve as pastor in Flint in 2011, you were leading a congregation in the predominantly white, middle-class village of Holly, Michigan. How did you feel about moving your family?
T: I was shocked. I had never lived in the inner city. The Flint school system had a very poor rating. It was considered one of the murder capitals of the nation. Plus, I had a newborn baby and a son in kindergarten.
Y: When did lead come on your radar?
T: My daughter turns two, we go to the doctor, and they take her blood. The nurse and doctor come running in saying, “Where do you live? Your daughter has alarmingly high lead levels.” They said maybe it was toys from China, so I began buying only toys made in the USA. I thought it was my own fault.
Y: And then it turned out to be the water.
T: I knew there was a water crisis, but I didn’t know it was as bad as it was. I was studying at Duke University when I saw my own church on the news, with protesters in the fellowship hall. We’d been duped. It was astronomically painful. I knew leaders from the state and the city, but nobody had said anything. They knew where I lived; they knew my family. They had never pulled me aside to say, “Don’t drink the water.” If they knew that GM [General Motors] was bringing in water to protect the cars, they had to have known.
Y: President Obama commended your church, Bethel United Methodist, for its early response to the crisis—including supplying safe water. Now you’re also providing filters, as well as foods that cut lead absorption. What’s your larger vision for Flint?
T: We’ve begun the renovation of this five-block radius around our church. We’ve cut down trees and grass and boarded up houses. But our church can only do so much. Through our community development corporation—which happened through Yale connections in the United Methodist Church via Facebook—we are considering land development, and we assist with home improvements.
I’m also focused on empowering people: job training and helping people become homeowners. In the sixties, Flint was the first city to have a fair-housing ordinance. Bethel had an integral part in that, and many people who did those sit-ins are still members.
Y: On Election Day, you were on your way to Haiti. What did you do there?
T: I went to teach preachers. Some of these men came in three on one bike, a seven-hour ride. We brought our best scholarship to teach them. I wouldn’t call myself a Bible scholar, but they were appreciative. That meant a lot to me, to have something to give.
Y: What can this country learn from the Flint experience?
T: I’d say transparency in the government is very, very important. Accountability is important. Character is important. It’s not that people don’t know this; they don’t always adhere to these things.
With all the issues going on in Haiti, on the radio [after the US election], channel after channel was praying for America—for leadership with integrity. I’m not saying anything against any leader, I’m just telling you what I heard. There I am trying to help them, right? Oh, no. They’re praying for us.