Churches in Rural Southern Black Communities Struggle With Suffering From Disease

Bishop Ira McCloud / Facebook

In 2013, the septic system at Jesus Christ Church of God the Bibleway failed and sewage began leaking into a neighbor’s yard—not uncommon for rural Alabama, an area plagued by sewage problems and a related upsurge in hookworm cases. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the church’s pastor, Bishop Ira McCloud.

The public health department accused McCloud of failing to fix the problem after multiple warnings. But McCloud had actually been trying to resolve the problem for months by connecting the church to a city sewer line; it would be cheaper and easier than buying a new septic system. The city, however, wasn’t making it easy.

When McCloud heard there was a warrant for his arrest, he immediately turned himself in. “I walked into the station and didn’t know what to do, so I put my hands up,” he recalled. “I had tears in my eyes when they took my picture.”

McCloud, fortunately, didn’t have to spend a night in jail. The sheriff’s department told him to go home; they weren’t in agreement with the state’s orders to make the arrest. With the problem unsolved, the city later threatened to shut off the church’s electricity and take the property away.

Leaking sewage systems—and the subsequent legal problems they cause—aren’t unique to Alabama and can be understood with a deeper “reading of the landscape,” an exercise recommended by ecologist Kristen Page, a faculty member at Wheaton College. She references Job 12: “… speak to the earth, and it will teach you.” It can help us understand our role as a part of creation and our connection and responsibility to our neighbors, she explained.

“Christ will return to reconcile all things,” Page said. “But before that, he left us as stewards of creation. To love creation and care for it is an extension of living like him.”

Page, who is particularly interested in how diseases can spread when humans alter landscapes, first encountered the story of rural Alabama’s sewage crisis when she met Catherine Flowers, rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, who shared her story at a global health and environment symposium at Wheaton College in 2018.

At the symposium, Flowers recalled visiting a young pregnant woman in Lowndes County, Alabama—a county of about 10,000 people some 30 miles southwest of the state’s capital, Montgomery.

With no major city or municipal sewer line nearby, their small, single-wide mobile home was unconnected to a city wastewater system. Instead, the woman managed by piping the family’s waste straight into her backyard.

A large pit of raw sewage sat just steps away from their backdoor, swarms of mosquitoes silently stalking across the raw waste. In the warm and sticky subtropical atmosphere of Alabama, the stench was impossible to ignore—but Flowers wasn’t shocked; she had seen this before. Cesspools of waste sat bubbling in the yards of many homes in Lowndes County, where she grew up.

Standing nearby in a summer dress, Flowers left the home with several rising welts where the mosquitoes had fed. Days later, her body broke out in a rash that would last for months. Tests for infections and other diseases came back negative, and it appeared as though she was healthy. The doctors were stumped.

Then Flowers recalled how mosquitoes had crawled across the wastewater—“I asked my doctor if I could have something that American doctors don’t typically test for and she told me it was possible,” Flowers said.

Eventually, the rash went away. Several years after her illness dissipated, Flowers came across a New York Times opinion piece by Peter Hotez, a medical researcher who described how poverty in the US was giving rise to diseases previously unheard of in America.

A lightbulb went off. Flowers said a quick prayer and then shot Hotez an email.

He quickly responded with interest and sent a team of researchers from Baylor College of Medicine to conduct an official study. Their findings would shock the scientific world.

Hookworm, a disease of the world’s poorest countries, was found in multiple residents in Lowndes County. The microscopic worm is notorious for persisting in regions with poor sanitation and open defecation. Individuals are primarily infected when their bare feet or skin come in contact with contaminated feces and the worm latches on, burrowing into the body.

With the advent of a treatment, hygiene education, and sewage systems, scientists had assumed that hookworm no longer existed in the US. The discovery sparked international attention: How could a disease of developing countries exist in America?

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Source: Christianity Today