Interview with Craig Leavitt

Craig sat down with FEAST editor, Katie Forsyth in his office at Crossover Downtown Outreach Ministries in October to talk about the impact of the Flint Water Crisis. 

 

What is Crossover and what is your role?

Crossover Downtown Outreach Ministries is a nonprofit that provides day to day emergency food and clothing, light household goods (silverware, flatware, small appliances), and personal care items – that’s what we do day to day.

We also do what we call our children’s ministries – our annual back to school program, sending kids to Camp Chickagami, a winter coat giveaway – these things are esteem building and sustaining.

My role is as the Executive Director, a role that is ever evolving. I make sure that our volunteers and staff have everything they need to do the job and to do it at the level we expect them to do – with grace, care, and love. And to do whatever the board wishes I do – pay the bills, repair the roof, shovel the snow, you know, it’s a lofty position!

 

How have you seen the Flint Water Crisis play out at Crossover?

It played out in a couple of ways.

First of all, I think trust was one of the biggest values we could offer to the community from a crisis perspective. We’ve been here twenty-five years and we have a good relationship with our clients. They knew they could come to us.

They knew they could come to us.

 

Has trust been an issue with residents since the crisis began?

Trust is an issue in the community now and has been in the past. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy for a lot of the folks that we serve. The community leadership never executed on the things they told them they would do for them. As we went through the water crisis, we were an area they could trust.

Our other role in the crisis was very unexpected – working with Father Dan [Scheid of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Flint] on the initial money that came through the diocese and Episcopal Relief and Development. At that time, he was fairly new to the community so he called me and asked “what are we going to do? What will we do first?” So we met across the street at the White Horse Inn and we did our research. I called my son – who at that time was Chief of Staff to our State Senator Jim Ananich, the minority leader – to get a better idea of the bigger picture and other assets in the area. We decided that the best thing to do would be to collaborate and hitch our train to some systems that are already in place, not to reinvent the wheel.

We decided that the best thing to do would be to collaborate and hitch our train to some systems that are already in place, not to reinvent the wheel.

A big part of that was getting St. Paul’s, CEC, St. Andrew’s, and Crossover on the original water distribution system through the Food Bank. We were immediately able to put water into bags for our folks. We found stability in the distribution of water and started to take the longer view, switching our focus to the lead mitigating foods, again working with our system of connections and knowing where the buttons and levers were at in the community. We were right away starting to put those types of foods in the hands of folks coming to us for help.

Working with Danielle Brown at the Christ Enrichment Center, we were able to partner with the Michigan State University Extension office to put on a smoothie class to learn how to make these treats that were nutritional and had the lead mitigating foods in them.

We worked with the Flint Farmers Market to deliver boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, good quality cheese, and other high protein foods. Turnips, mangos, you know, things they may have never seen or used. We taught them how to use them so that these little bodies can fight off the lead poisoning. So the GED students at CEC were able to get these boxes and eliminate another barrier to being able to complete the program and graduate with their GED.

We worked with the Head Start program to get infant toothbrushes, fluoride water – you know, dental hygiene was huge at that point. You’ve gotta keep your teeth brushed and clean all the time when you’ve been exposed to that lead. They were also able to mix formula with that fluoride water.

There was a number of ways we played in to that, but I think it was more of the underpinnings, the things that we did outside the system, that really paid the dividends for the community. Where we saw systems in place and things that were needed, we were able to fill in the gaps that others couldn’t see.

We were able to fill in the gaps that others couldn’t see.

With the funding we received for our Episcopal ministries, we recognized that we have to be good stewards and that meant to use our gifts for the good of the community. We were able to do good diligence for the things we supported and continue to support while having a listening ear to be flexible to the changing and developing needs of the community.

 

What challenges have you seen for residents in the midst of the crisis?

You know, it’s not easy to be poor. A lot of issues come from transportation. We see it right here, we will give them a bag of groceries, full of the foods the doctors are recommending to fight the lead. But because they don’t have reliable transportation, they have to lighten their load. They can’t carry it. They take a can out here, a can out there. You see them sitting on the side of the road.

Some of us take this for granted, we go to the grocery store, get our bags of food and load them in the car. It can be a big obstacle for others. If we have a big family coming in, we pack a family for food. We have bus passes to give out and that helps.

 

How have you seen organizations, churches, and governmental agencies working together throughout the crisis?

In the first few months after the official announces, Flint was bombarded with water. People were sending it from all over.

I’m sitting here at Crossover and the phone rings. It’s this pastor from New York City. Their church had decided to send water to Flint. He called me and said he hadn’t been able to get anyone to pick up the phone. He had left messages everywhere and hadn’t heard back. We were flooded with water. I told him, “Brother, I will find you a place for that water.”

So I called around and talked to Miss Harris at House of Prayer. And they could take it! They had the space and the turnover to get it out the door.

Then the pastor calls me back and says, it’s not coming by semi but it’s already been paid for and is waiting at the Costco in Clarkston. So I have to get it from Costco to House of Prayer. So I call my friends at the UAW to get six guys who can drive their trucks up and pick it up and they’re ready to go. But I get another call and the fire department is going to deliver it.

There was so much good will coming from all over, I just had a hard time telling people no! They were looking to connect their hearts!

The Rev. Dan Scheid, the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Craig Leavitt, the Very Rev. Jay Gantz, and the Most Rev. Michael Curry pose for a picture during the House of Bishops' visit to Flint, MI.
The Rev. Dan Scheid, the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Craig Leavitt, the Very Rev. Jay Gantz, and the Most Rev. Michael Curry pose for a picture during the House of Bishops’ visit to Flint, MI.

 

And you had to make sure they were contributing in a way that was helpful rather than creating a different problem for Flint organizations…

And that’s a very important point! I had to tell some people, “I want to find you something but give me a couple of days!”

I want them to feel their contribution to the community, connect them with meaningful things to do. At that point, CNN, you know, everybody everywhere, we were inundated with folks. To be able to fit these kids in here was a great thing.

That’s education of the heart – to go where he’s telling you to go. Like Sister Brown from St. Augustine, Atlantic City – she felt it on her heart one day and gathered a group and here she was!

I find the things that come to you organically are the things that are most meaningful and longest lasting. Sometimes we have to slow down and not miss those opportunities. That’s God walking into your life and doing something special.

Sometimes we have to slow down and not miss those opportunities. That’s God walking into your life and doing something special.

 

We’re a little over a year out from when we were all told about the dangerous levels of lead in Flint. There had been national attention, a lot of people coming into the city in those first few months. Have you seen that die down? Is that a problem?

Yes, the dust has settled. The cameras are gone. And the residuals are way worse that what we had thought. So we’re not getting the play in the press. Congress did not have the wherewithal to appropriate the things that would help the community.

As the dust settles, one of the things that’s important that we do, is to recognize that we can only impact what we can impact. We’re blessed to have gifts that we’ve received from all over the country, including the Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development. We have some staying power here. We’re able to take the long look. And we see that folks are not able to get all of the resources they did when the lights were shining. We’re able to continue to sustain our work, our Episcopal missions.

I saw Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha gave a talk recently and she slowed it down and explained it saying, “Ok, the roof came off, the lights came on. We had a terrible tragedy. We did the stop gap thing, we switched the water. But we will not be measured by any of that. Our community will be measured by how we responded.”

Right now the community is having a difficult time framing how we do that. Part of the issue is that funding has been so sporadic from the state and federal government, and some of what has come forth is restricted so that we cannot use it in areas that would be best for the community.

Another thing is that during the initial rush we had all these folks coming in here. They inundated our brothers and sisters with all good intent. But they never came back. They never followed through. They did health screenings and all kinds of stuff but the loop didn’t come back around. The lights are gone. It further injured the relationship between the world and our good brothers and sisters that lay on those fringes. They filled them with hope and then let them down. We’re left with that “I told you so…”

Now, one of our biggest assets at Crossover is the trust. We’re not saving the world here, don’t get me wrong, but they know that when they come through the door, we greet them without judgment, with a great deal of love, and it’s consistent.

Even if we look at doing things differently – we’re trying to get away from only giving things away to working to break the cycle of generational poverty –we’re still here with openness, love, and consistency.

 

Where do you see the gaps going forward in Flint?

We are going to have kids with developmental setbacks in our school system. One of our biggest needs going forward is going to be to equip our schools – both public and charter – to have the support, training, and capacity to right-size classrooms and have closer attention to each child so that teachers can identify the cases in which special attention might be needed. To establish a protocol to bring in parents and do some testing and establish a standard of care so that these kids can continue on through the school system with the support to be successful.

As we’re looking at expanding our building and capacity, do we need to create space for screenings? Treatment? We’re going to be seeing these kids and right now the city doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it. We have to be able to take this on. In order to handle this issue, we would have had to have been building this up for years before the crisis happened!

What is it going to say about us as human beings but how we treated these affected folks? Did Flint get it right? Did we get it right?

What is it going to say about us as human beings but how we treated these affected folks? Did Flint get it right? Did we get it right? You don’t get a do-over. That’s where we’re called to be. +

A shortened version of this interview appears in the Autumn 2016 issue of THE FEAST, the diocesan printed magazine. Subscribe for free here

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