Reflections on Lent, fasting and Flint crisis

Lawrence Ventline

A recent walk on Caniff or Jos. Campau in Hamtramck may have surprised some passersby who glanced at the black ash-smeared foreheads of the faithful freshly marked with the cross-shaped reminder of their mortality. They were evident near Queen of Apostles Church on Conant and St. Florian Church only blocks away from Jos. Campau.

For millions of Christians, including Catholics, a 40-day penitential season of Lent started last week. It continues through Holy Thursday evening of the week when the same believers celebrate Easter Sunday late next month.

An Old English word, “Lencten” means “springtime.” It’s a time of intense praying, fasting, abstaining from meat on Fridays, charitable giving and forgiving others. The trek is similar to the 30-day Ramadan of Muslims.

Passing through the diverse town between Highland Park and Detroit, I saw long lines of people from Waterford, New Haven, Shelby Township and elsewhere at the two landmark Polish-American bakeries on Jos. Campau. These shoppers aimed to get their hands on the traditional paczki just before the Ash Wednesday rigor of forgetting about such treats for six weeks.

Christians intend to focus on the living, suffering and dying of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who came to show them “the way, the truth and the life” and to save them from the grip of sin and death.

“Do they have ashes sprinkled on those paczki?” I asked members of the cheerful crowds who noticed the Roman collar around my neck. “No!” one blond-haired lady yelled back, “but they have lemon, prune, raspberry and more.”

“The line is up front, Father Ventline” one elderly man blurted out, obviously aware of my visits and “street evangelizing.” After bit of friendly conversation, I moved on.

On my way to the Polish Market across the street, I thought of the toxic neglect of the Flint River and, how residents in that automobile city would observe Lent now that they have been exposed to contaminated drinking water for more than a year.

The children came to mind as the health risks are greatest for the young in the poor and largely African-American community.

After all, at Easter believers will watch water pour over the heads of the newly claimed Christians who are baptized or received into the church as adults or children.

As they join the Christian community, will the water still be orange-colored and contaminated? I wondered. Did race play a role in the decisions to save money in Flint? Could that happen in Dearborn, Ferndale or Birmingham? What if local officials who live in Flint made the final determination to stop using Detroit's water? Would the story end in such horror?

While I traveled home after my few-hour trek through another troubled town along Detroit's borders, I thought about misery, mercy and more. My own plans for Lent suddenly sobered me all over from heart and soul to saddened reasoning.

As I lay my head on my bed pillow later that night, I thanked God for priceless water, for Flint, and for what may be a Lent that seems longer than usual, at least for my acquaintances in Flint.

Lawrence Matthew Ventline is a Catholic pastor and a board certified professional counselor. He resides in Harrison Township.