“My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
These words from the opening verse of Psalm 63 landed a bit differently on the afternoon of August 29, when I turned on my faucet and nothing happened. As of that day, Jackson, Mississippi, had been under a boil water notice for almost a month due to high turbidity (cloudiness) in the water supply.
A boil water notice was nothing new for Jackson, where aging infrastructure often causes brief interruptions in water pressure or cleanliness. But extremely heavy late-summer rains had caused the Pearl River to surpass flood stage and crest at almost 36 feet. The incursion of the Pearl into the city’s main water treatment plant caused a critical failure of the pumps and an inability to move clean water throughout the city.
I’ve lived in Mississippi’s capital city my entire life, and I grew up in a historic district—the city’s first subdivision—where potholes and boil water notices were the norm. But I’d never seen anything like this. Thankfully, water pressure returned to some connections sporadically. But the events that many began calling “the Jackson Water Crisis” still left many of Jackson’s nearly 170,000 residents with little or no drinking water.
Local, state, and federal entities moved quickly to resolve the immediate mechanical problems and restore water in the days that followed. But engineering issues aside, how can we see God’s providence in such a disaster? Perhaps there are more ways than we think.
Citizens Stepped Up
During the crisis, Jacksonians stepped up to the plate like never before. Where an infrastructure failure of this magnitude might have economically derailed other cities, many Jackson restaurants and other businesses stayed open. Jackson’s entrepreneurs received an outpouring of support and kept the local economy running against all odds. Something as simple as the ability to eat at favorite local restaurants provided a sense of normalcy. Local businesses became an anchor and morale booster for the community.
Unfortunately, most of the national media coverage around the water issues doesn’t tell this part of the story. But because of the way my city—my neighbors, my friends, my fellow church members—came together to support one another, I’ve never felt prouder to be from Jackson. The ingenuity shown by Jacksonians throughout the crisis was a beautiful example of the imago Dei. We’re creative because God is the Creator. We provide because God is the Provider.
The Church Stepped In
God’s Word tells us to seek the welfare of the city where he has sent us into exile (Jer. 29:7). While Jeremiah was originally writing to Jews in Babylonian captivity, I think we can draw out a general principle that God’s people are to seek the good of the jurisdictions in which he has placed them. The churches of Jackson (a 2017 Barna report listed Jackson as one of the most churched cities in the U.S.) have done so in encouraging ways.
First Presbyterian Church, itself affected by the loss of water, immediately began collecting donations and distributing water to the community, handing out over 565 cases of bottled water. First Presbyterian discovered the city hadn’t been able to respond to dozens of requests for water from shut-ins and was able to deliver water to those who couldn’t get it on their own.
Jerry Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, president of the National Baptist Convention, and alumnus of Reformed Theological Seminary, has been a unifying figure throughout the crisis. As one of Jackson’s most trusted religious leaders, Young has called for national, state, and local officials as well as citizens to look past political differences and work together to find solutions. New Hope, along with many other churches, has also been directly involved in efforts to distribute water.
Many businesses and individuals are fleeing the problems of cities like Jackson, yet it would take volumes to recount all the ways local churches (not to mention churches from other cities and states) became the “hands and feet of Jesus” and helped alleviate the effects of the crisis.
In all my years living here, I’ve never seen my hometown in the press as much as I have in recent months. Most of the attention is for less-than-preferable reasons. Crumbling infrastructure, crime statistics, and political squabbling tend to dominate the Jackson news cycle. It can be disheartening and frustrating, especially coming from external sources that show and tell very little of how God is at work in the history, honor, hope, and resilience of the people of Mississippi.
The people of Jackson—those of us who will be able to tell our children and grandchildren about the time all the pipes dried up—tell a different story: one of how the Lord provides for and draws near to his people, even and especially in times of crisis. The same God who brought water out of a rock in the Sinai Desert is able to sustain us with his presence today in Jackson, Mississippi.