Lighting a fire in Flint: Fr. Tom leads the Catholic presence there

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Rose Robertson | Photography by Jim Luning
June, 2016

Funny how names can reveal who we are and what we are meant to do. Take the name Firestone. A firestone, also known as a flint, is a strong rock used to generate a spark. That’s exactly what Father Tom Firestone is doing with the Catholic Church in Flint (a name coincidence?) – creating a spark to fuel a fire of energy, unity and rebuilding.

In May 2015, Bishop Boyea asked Father Tom to pastor four churches – St. John Vianney, St, Michael, St. Matthew and St. Mary – in an effort to strengthen the Catholic presence in Flint. As a critical player in FIF (Faith in Flint), Father Tom was given carte blanche to design how the collective parishioners would work in partnership as missionary disciples. He says: “This is quite a change from how I used to work. Now I collaborate with three priests, one deacon who’ll be ordained in June and two permanent deacons – each assigned to one of the parishes I’m responsible for. They’re younger, they’re my energy and we work as a team. Before we could begin any planning of offering something different to these people, I knew we needed to spend some time in prayer together. We asked the Holy Spirit to lead us step by step, knowing if we plan too far ahead, it becomes our plans and not the Spirit’s innovations. Our parish reconfiguration started as a blank canvas, and it’s amazing how the Spirit has led us to fill things in.

“I’m trying to get these four parishes (with Christ the King) to understand we are really just one Catholic Church in Flint. We’re slowly accomplishing this. For the past year, we’ve been sharing prayer experiences to better utilize our resources. This offers us a different way to work together as priests, and helps our parishes understand ‘church’ can take place beyond the building they ascribe to.

“Another thing I’m trying to do is get all four parishes to look at the whole city as our parish, which means getting out there, meeting other religions and communities and working with them. To spur this, we are planning an ecumenical Tent Revival for the entire city of Flint on June 24 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. This will include music, children’s activities, a prayer service, a guest speaker, etc. Catholics will do the planning. We need to let the rest of the community know Catholics aren’t insular, nor are we a silo Church, but a Church that gets out there and walks the streets.”

And walk the streets they do, when time allows, in door-to-door ministry where two clerics, a priest and a deacon, visit individual residences. The east side, rife with drugs, gangs, unemployment, and safety issues, is where they began. Father Tom continues: “People are surprised that two guys with collars are at their door, but they have been very cordial, telling us they want something on that side of town. People are looking for someone to center them and give them a place to have a sense of that. We were able to offer such an experience to them last November. During a snowstorm, we put the word out we’d provide a day with food, games for the kids, and a little prayer. Over 200 people showed up for this impromptu gathering. That’s telling us there’s a desire for more.”

Not everything enjoys forward momentum. Frustrated, Father Tom shares the incredible challenges inflicted by the water crisis. “We were just beginning to do basic evangelization when the water emergency erupted last fall. All three of our schools have been affected. We notice a lot of issues with our younger children’s inability to pay attention and settle down. Addressing this catastrophe has sidelined much of our work.”

Father Tom’s parish office, peppered with organized chaos, reveals the myriad demands of attending to multiple parishes and FIF initiatives encumbered by the strain of the water crisis. How does he keep pace? Father Tom’s wise smile tugs at the corners of his mouth: “I’ve been forced to completely rethink how I do ministry and give up parts of parish life. Mostly, I take it one day at a time. I want the diocese to be patient with us … I’m hoping to get the people of the diocese to understand that Flint, immersed in daily poverty, is mission country. The problem will not go away quickly. Flint has been dysfunctional for a long time, and the Catholic Church has to be a hopeful message of community based on Christ. The Catholic Church has always been in this city, will continue to be in this city, and is for this city.”

Father Tom on Michigan Faith in Action (MFIA)

MFIA began as FACT, Flint Area Congregations Together, as an ecumenical gathering to improve Flint. This was something new for the Catholic initiative to get involved in, but we have to walk a fine line to not get caught up in the politics of endorsing candidates. This organization is modeled on People In Community Organizing (PICO) begun by Father John Baumann, a Jesuit priest, in 1972. As the Catholic Church, we felt we were safe to work with them and we have been working together in terms of the water crisis.