Nathan Kirkpatrick: Sustaining attention after a crisis, when fatigue sets in

Flint Water Tower

The Flint water crisis began about three years ago, and it will be years more before all public water lines are replaced. iStock / Linda Parton

Christian leaders must press their communities to address needs long after a health emergency, a natural disaster, a mass shooting -- even when others have moved on, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

They’re calling it “Flint fatigue.”

People, it seems, are tired of hearing about what that Michigan city and its residents need as they live with the city’s water crisis. We are about three years into this crisis, and some in Michigan outside Flint seem ready to move on, to have conversations about other topics, to raise money for other causes, to allocate public resources elsewhere. In places outside Michigan, many of us have already moved on, because we do not see the water crisis on the evening news or in our morning news feeds as often as we once did. Flint fatigue seems to be spreading.

The problem with this is that the water crisis is ongoing. It will be an estimated three more years before all the public water lines under the streets are replaced and then those who need to can begin to replace the pipes in their own homes and businesses. That is just one of the ongoing dimensions of this crisis.

The longer-lasting effects will endure well beyond the infrastructure fixes. The health effects for adults and children will continue for decades, generations perhaps, as lead is a particularly insidious substance. Potentially thousands will need ongoing health care and support. The loss of confidence and trust in public institutions will persist. Leaders will live and serve in the shadows of this crisis through many election cycles, public debates and public works projects to come. Even the most benevolent and honest of leaders will be thoroughly suspect.

Faith communities have done remarkable work in Flint, but now many of their leaders are weary in their own ways. As any pastor who has responded to a community crisis knows, this is taxing ministry, made even more difficult when you and your family are experiencing the effects as well.

In such situations, there is no escaping the crisis, with its many demands and pressures; it is all-consuming and all-encompassing. These leaders will no doubt continue to do their best to respond to the needs of their neighbors, but Flint fatigue will most likely mean that they will do so with fewer outside resources and less support. Some denominations have already begun reducing their financial support for Flint ministries from where it was at the height of public awareness about the crisis.

Flint fatigue has amplified the real costs of the crisis for people and ministries. Listening to a group of Flint pastors reflect recently on their experiences, I was struck that they carry the additional burden of lobbying for themselves, of pleading with institutions to remember them and their ongoing struggles, of educating strangers about what it’s like on streets and in homes. I asked one pastor whether she was tired of telling people about her experience of the water crisis. “Yes,” she said, “but those of us from Flint don’t have a choice.”

Of course, Flint is not unique in this. Whether it is the water crisis or hurricane recovery or a mass shooting or the global refugee crisis, public attention for others’ tragedy is often short-lived. But these crises are durative. To be sure, there are relief organizations and agencies that are committed to being the first in and last out, but generally speaking, public attention and donations decline dramatically as time elapses. There is an immediate outpouring of support in the days after a crisis or disaster or tragedy, but that support declines even as the real needs of a community come into sharper focus -- ironically, when our giving could have a more significant and strategic impact.

Those of us who lead organizations whose mission is not primarily disaster relief can do something about this reality.

We can help combat Flint fatigue and those similar syndromes that follow other disasters. We can remind our colleagues and constituents and congregants of the crises that continue and the needs that persist. We can name them regularly and challenge our people to continue to help. Some may say that the litany of disasters and crises would simply be too long, that there are too many to remember, let alone name. But that is precisely the point -- the litany is long yet needs to be recited; otherwise, collective amnesia further burdens and victimizes.

Weariness with a tragedy is a privilege for those of us who are far removed from it, but as Christians, we are called to “get proximate,” as Bryan Stevenson and others would say -- to share the burden and stay the course with brothers and sisters in need.