FLINT, Michigan -- Few communities know the impact of misinformation and government inaction better than Flint. Which is precisely why former presidential candidate and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro wanted to hear from Flint Pastor Ezra Tillman Jr. and First Lady Catrina Tillman of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church on the September 17 episode of his ‘Our America’ podcast entitled, “Return to Flint.”
They discussed the Flint water crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Flint and communities like it.
“He (Castro) was running for President, and he came to Flint,” Catrina Tillman said. “First Trinity was one of the stops he made during his first visit. We had a really good conversation with him regarding Flint, and of course, The Water Box, and our role that we played in the community during the water crisis. From there, he remembered us, and said he wanted us to be one of the first guests that he had on the show.”
Ezra Tillman Jr. said he is thankful for the opportunity to be a guest on the podcast, which serves as a platform to let people know Flint still needs help. It also tells the tale of the current helpers in the community.
“There’s so many people that have come through, and have tried to use their platform to try to shine some light on the concerns of the community,” Tillman Jr. said. “For us, we kind of got away from the excitement about interviews versus people showing you the importance of the work you’re really doing. You’re engaged in what you’re doing, it’s normal to you, it’s your daily or weekly work. But for them to see it from the outside, and around the world from other places, they know if it’s authentic. They know if you’re passionate about it, they know if you are committed to it. So I think Secretary (Castro) coming back to us to return kind of showed us the weight of the ministry that we’re really doing. It’s definitely a milestone for the work in the Flint community.”
The work taking place in Flint is not solely relevant to one city though -- and is often included as an example of the much larger scope of environmental and racial injustices residents of cities like Flint around the country face. Castro mentions environmental racism, and the way it manifests around the country in the episode. “Our America” revolves around the idea of reimagining the country, with stories firsthand from people who are struggling, aspiring, and following dreams.
Catrina Tillman spoke about the hope she sees for our nation in the episode. “This is not America the Beautiful,” she said. “We have potential to be, but there are some tough conversations and some laws and things within the grounds and the roots of these United States that must change.”
Another way she hopes to impact more lives is through her role as CEO of the Revive Community Health Center. The center features services for African American mothers during their pregnancy. Future services will also include behavioral programs for children.
Much of the Tillmans’ daily outreach is still centered around the water crisis, with many Flint residents still going to church weekly for gallon jugs of water from the Water Box. Stemming from conversations with the Tillmans and 501CTHREE’s founders Jaden Smith and Drew Fitzgerald, the Water Box, a portable filtration system, was created. In order to address the issue of excess plastics from thousands of water bottles being delivered to town daily, conversations for a new approach started back in 2018. By 2019, the first Water Box was launched. Since then, there have been four boxes, scattered all over Flint, central to some of the most vulnerable populations including the elderly, children, and the Latinx community.
For the Tillmans, outreach stems far outside of their church members. In the same way, that’s the kind of country Catrina Tillman ideally invisions -- one truly unified, no matter each person’s background. That, however, comes at a price of really examining what this nation is built upon, and representative of, thus far.
“I think that while we sing and we pledge allegiance to this flag, and we sing these songs, ‘America the Beautiful,’ that’s not the reality for every race,” she said. “I think you can’t really move forward in any hard conversation until you acknowledge the wrong that has been done. And as a society, America has not acknowledged the wrong that it continues to do with African Americans.”
“Our America” can be heard on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. The ‘Return to Flint’ episode transcript can be found here.