Bishop Earl Boyea of the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan calls Father Tom Firestone “the pope of Flint.” The nickname started in 2015 when Bishop Boyea merged the only remaining five parishes in Flint into one, led by Father Firestone with the support of four other priests.
Instead of priests overseeing their own individual parishes, Firestone considers the entire city of Flint a single Catholic community. He and Flint’s other priests live together and instead of each serving one parish, their focus is on Flint as a whole.
Leadership in Flint is not just priests, but a collaborative team of clergy, women religious, Catholic Workers, lay leaders, and volunteers. Their focus is not only on providing services and celebrating Mass, but also on building personal relationships with all of Flint’s residents—Catholic or not—through the new “Catholic Community of Flint.” “We had a great amount of freedom to experiment,” Firestone says, “to do things that you probably couldn’t do in a normal parish.”
What used to be separate parishes are now called “campuses,” and parishioners are encouraged to think outside the four walls of their own building to support the city as a whole. This happens through campus ministries, food banks, work skills programs, and youth outreach. They go door to door, talking to Flint residents and building relationships with people across the city.
“If we give someone love and a relationship with a community, everything else flows from that,” Firestone says.
What should people know about Flint, Michigan?
In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated that as many as 45 percent of people in Flint were living in poverty. It wasn’t always this way; we were the founding home of General Motors. All the Buicks in the world were made in Flint, Michigan. But that’s all gone. We still have a few GM plants, but they’re not even the No. 1 employer in the city anymore.
When GM pulled out, that was it. Poverty just took over. We went from a city of 200,000 people, almost half of whom were GM workers, to a city of about 95,000 total.
Now there are lots of empty houses. The people who are left are the people who can’t leave: elderly and low-income people, many of whom are African American or Hispanic. And then on top of that, we’ve been going through this crazy water problem. The city had infrastructure for 200,000 people that is now crumbling. There are areas where the water pipes still haven’t even been touched.
The number of Catholics and Catholic parishes has decreased. Right now we have about 90 priests in the Diocese of Lansing: in 10 years this number will probably go down to 40. When I came to Flint in 2005, I was overseeing one elementary school and one parish, St. John Vianney. In 2008, I became the priest of a new parish formed after four other city parishes merged. And then, in 2014, Bishop Boyea of the Diocese of Lansing approached me about the idea of having only one pastor for the entire city, with the idea that he would send four other priests to help.
Bishop Boyea’s point was that things in Flint were continuing to go downhill, and why should the diocese continue to beat ourselves over the head trying to do the same thing we’d always done?
How are you responding to these needs?
Bishop Boyea basically gave me carte blanche. He just said, “You’re in charge. Go to it.” So we have a great amount of freedom to experiment and to do things that you just can’t do in a normal parish.
A team of priests and I took over the remaining five parishes in Flint. We fixed up the rectory of St. John Vianney so that we could all live in community together. We created a team that meets every week to coordinate all the realities that are in Flint.
This team is bigger than just priests. It includes a women’s religious order, the Servants of God’s Love, a Catholic Workers community, deacons, and laypeople, many of whom we’re sending for graduate degrees in theology.
This broader leadership is so important to what we’re doing. If we’re going to be down to 40 priests in our diocese in the next 10 years, we have to have other leadership step up. Through this team approach, we’re trying to foster that leadership to come forward.
We’ve got to be willing to spend the money on our people who are willing to come forward and work for our church. And that doesn’t necessarily mean clergy and religious; it means laypeople. The emphasis on laypeople has to take hold. I think that’s what the Holy Spirit is saying, and that’s what the Second Vatican Council said.
We’re not reinventing the wheel here: All we’re doing is saying that there are people with charisms out there and we need to use that and to make people take responsibility for the church.
The church is much more than just a priest. Sometimes priests need to get out of the way and let lay Catholics take hold of our church. It really comes down to faith: having faith in one another, in our community, and in our relationships with others.
Father Tom Firestone commissioned this icon, “Mary, Mother of Flint,” “to give the people of Flint a new image of Mary that was significant to them.” For Firestone, the icon, which today is located in an outdoor shrine on the east side of Flint, is something “people can hold on to, that will help them understand the reality of the church long beyond any one individual.” Image: Catholic Community of Flint
What has been your biggest challenge?
One of the things we’re trying to do here in Flint is to break down parochial barriers. The church has built a parochial system that is ingrained in our bishops, our priests, and our people. It’s almost like there’s no other way to do church.
But that’s absurd. Jesus didn’t say, “Well, over there is a different parish boundary, so we can’t go over there and work.” I’ve come to believe that the parochial model can prevent evangelization in some ways. Here in Flint, the entire city of Flint is our parish. Counting heads in the pews is not evangelization; we have to treat the whole city as our parish. And I’ll be perfectly honest; we haven’t been fully successful at breaking down those boundaries. But we’re trying our best, we really are.
We still hold Mass at four churches, but I do not allow them to call themselves parishes. They are campuses of the Catholic Community of Flint. Two of them, St. John Vianney and St. Matthew’s, are still canonical parishes. They have active members and help to generate funding for our projects throughout Flint. The other two campuses, St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s, are now oratories, or chapels open for private worship. We’ve kept those open, but on a Sunday you could shoot a cannon down the length of the church and you wouldn’t hit anybody.
Why is it so hard to let go of the parochial system?
People aren’t always happy with the fact that they have to give money to another part of the city. Take, for example, our school. When I came to Flint 13 years ago, I was tasked with keeping a parochial school open. It’s still open, but it’s no longer a parochial school; it’s for all children in Flint. Today, it’s probably the only fully integrated school in Flint; we have Hispanic, African American, and white students, and 50 percent of them aren’t Catholic.
At first, the bishop was a little wary of this. But to me, part of evangelism is providing students with a safe educational environment. We started this initiative right before the water crisis, and it turns out we’ve had to deal with some emergency realities and punt some of our long-term projects. One of those realities is that the lead poisoning has had the largest effect on children. But because a lot of our students can’t afford tuition, this means I have to raise a lot of money from other sources, including other parts of the city.
How are you creating a sense of community beyond parish walls?
There are four colleges in Flint—University of Michigan, Flint, Kettering University, Baker College of Flint, and Mott Community College—and yet our diocese had done nothing about campus ministry. Father James Mangan decided we should open up a coffee house. So we rented spaces from Riverside Tabernacle Church, right next to the University of Michigan. It’s called Dorothy’s, because the Catholic Worker community helps us run it.
St. Michael’s downtown used to be what we called a “megachurch” for the entire diocese. It’s this monstrosity of a church that was built back in the 1960s by a monsignor who hoped to turn it into a cathedral. Today if I have 60 people at Sunday Mass, I’m lucky. So we’re trying to use the space for other purposes: We organized a volunteer center at St. Michael. There’s also Catholic Charities and St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, which was developed by a couple of women religious in Flint after a bunch of food pantries joined together. Today St. Luke’s not only has soup kitchens, but it’s a training center for employment and hosts literacy classes.
We’re also trying to develop volunteerism within Flint. While I encourage people to come into the city and help out, that’s not enough. Let’s say someone comes in and builds a house with Habitat for Humanity. Providing housing is important, but there’s no relationship in that kind of work. A volunteer leaves the city and pats themselves on the back because they’ve done something good, but they’ve missed the whole point of what we’re trying to build here, which is community. Instead, I’d rather have people who live in Flint step up to support one another: to build a house for their neighbor, in this example.
For us, the bottom line is that all of our work is focused on relationships. We let people know, “We’re here, we’re not leaving, and we’ll be there for you.” One of the most important things we do is just walk around the city. We literally just go into the city and walk it.
Again, this isn’t reinventing anything. We just do what Jesus does in the gospel: go out two by two. We knock on doors, we talk to people, we see what’s going on. We don’t just go in people’s homes, give them some literature, and try to convert them. That’s not the point. It’s about building relationships and trust.
We had a Deacon’s Day where we invited deacons throughout the diocese to come to Flint and walk with us. Afterward, we had over 1,500 people show up at our church for prayer, to share a meal, to talk with the deacons. Everyone, both the volunteers from outside Flint and the people who came, began to see the community differently that day.
After going door to door for several years, people are beginning to approach us. And it’s not always about taking physical care of people, although that’s certainly a reality in this city. It’s also about relieving a spiritual poverty.
Honest to God, I believe the Holy Spirit wants this to happen. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit runs this church. There’s no gigantic plan behind how we do this. Our plan is called the gospels. Jesus gave them to us, and they still work if you really have the courage to start applying them. We believe that the Holy Spirit’s with us.
Is there a community model like this anywhere else?
I don’t think Flint is unique. There are two realities necessary to rebuild the structure of the church: relationships both individually and in community. As long as these two points are kept in the forefront, this model can work anywhere.
But it has to be based in relationship. It has to be within the community. A priest can’t impose this on someone; it has to be developed within a community. I’ll be perfectly honest: Priests sometimes just get in the way.
When I see the kids who attend our school, my prayer for them is this simple: that they can come to know Jesus and grow in their love for him and for one another. It’s that simple. Isn’t that what we believe in? Isn’t that giving someone God when we offer them a relationship with ourselves and with their community?
This article also appears in the May 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 5, pages 45–46).
Image: Flickr cc via Michigan Municipal League