Flint, MI—Shortly after Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, Genesee Health Services, and four local churches announced a pilot program to combat the city’s gun violence through greater access to mental health services, a video surfaced of Bishop Christopher Martin, one of the partner churches’ leaders, making homophobic remarks from his pulpit.

Since then, some Flint residents have questioned the legitimacy of a partnership between GHS and Martin’s church, Cathedral of Faith, given how his remarks ostracize LGBTQIA+ members of the community who might otherwise seek services through the pilot program.

Both GHS and Martin responded to that criticism and clarified how the pilot program, called ‘4 Pillars,’ came to be and what it is intended to do for the Flint community.

About 4 Pillars

The 4 Pillars pilot was announced on June 8 at a press conference at Flint City Hall, with the ‘4’ standing for the four churches originally taking part: Cathedral of Faith, Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, Grace Immanuel Baptist Church, and Salem Lutheran Church.

Salem Lutheran Church has since decided not to participate “due to limited space and staffing,” according to a GHS spokesperson.

Martin said he and the other partners are working to confirm a new fourth location.

Despite losing one church partner, 4 Pillars began operations last week, bringing GHS staff to each participating church on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on a rotating basis for the next three months.

While the churches serve as hubs, GHS staff provides mental health navigational services, therapy, or other support based on individuals’ needs, which are being assessed during the early weeks of the pilot. 

The program is partially funded through the Community Mental Health Millage, but GHS emphasized any money going to the churches is nominal, meant for keeping the lights on and a church representative around while GHS is onsite.

“One of the…misperceptions from the program is that these churches are getting big bucks, and they’re not. They’re getting whatever it costs us to be there,” said Danis Russell, CEO of GHS. “There’s going to have to be somebody in there to open the building; staff are going to need restrooms; it’s going to cost utilities. There’s going to be resources spent. … we will pay for it.”

“It’s been dubbed the ‘crazy house.”

Flint Bishop Christopher Martin

The goal of 4 Pillars, Martin told Flint Beat, is to “lower the violent temperature of individuals in our city and county” by eliminating physical barriers, like transportation, as well as psychological barriers to accessing Genesee Health System’s mental health services.

“The (GHS) building on Fifth has held some negative connotation,” Martin said. “It’s been dubbed the crazy house and things of this nature—and it’s not. So what this does is it brings a level of anonymity to who’s being seen, how they arrive.”

Martin explained that anonymity could make community members more comfortable when seeking services to help cope with the disagreements or traumas that lead to violent actions.

In fact, that’s how 4 Pillars came to be: Martin went on the news and said the same thing.

“If I see somebody, like a community leader, on the news or in the paper, mention mental health, I always reach out,” Russell said. “I saw Bishop Martin on the news being asked about violence in one of the neighborhoods, and this was the first time he said, ‘but I really think that my community needs mental health services.'”

Russell said he emailed Cathedral of Faith’s general email to offer GHS’s support, and Martin called him back—something, Russell noted, that rarely happens when he reaches out to talk about mental health.

“And it just kind of went from there,” Russell said. “We talked about what we could do, what he thought his congregation in his neighborhood needed… He said, ‘You mind if I invite a couple other pastors?’ and I said, ‘The more the merrier.'” 

Russell said he questioned whether the pilot will be able to combat Flint’s gun violence on the scale that the city and churches are hoping for, but he was grateful for the opportunity to meet anyone needing mental health services where they’re at.

“We’re trying to serve groups that we haven’t served before, and that was what the millage was all about,” Russell said. “We’re trying to serve those groups where they’re most comfortable because we know not everybody wants to come to a mental health building.”

The Video

Within days of the pilot program announcement, a video of Martin discussing the firing of another local pastor began circulating on Facebook.

In the video, Martin says the pastor’s firing was justified because of his alleged sexual orientation.

“They should have never hired him, he’s been gay,” Martin said from his church pulpit. “A man, pastor, and you, ought to be married to a woman. … We cannot have perversion over the people.”

The video was shared widely, and even prompted some Flint residents to reach out to Neeley and GHS for comment during public meetings. 

While Neeley’s office did not respond to Flint Beat’s repeated requests for comment on the video and the propriety of GHS and the city’s continued partnership with Martin, GHS did respond to a concerned resident’s statements at its recent board meeting.

“We should be building community where everyone is welcome.”

Flint social activist Nayyirah Sharriff

At the June 23 meeting, Flint-based social justice advocate Nayyirah Sharriff stepped up to offer their feedback on the 4 Pillars program.

“We should be building a community where everyone is welcome, especially people who are vulnerable that need these services,” Sharriff said. “It’s already kind of an impediment for people to recognize that they need to seek out services, and having a service in a location that is homophobic? That is not a safe space.”

At a June 23, 2022, Genesee Health Services meeting, Flint-based social justice advocate Nayyirah Sharriff gave their feedback on the 4 Pillars program recently launched at local Flint churches. Shariff became concerned after a local bishop affiliated with the program made anti-gay remarks during a church service. The program puts GHS workers in the community through the use of local church buildings. (Kate Stockrahm | Flint Beat)

Sharriff noted that Black trans women are some of the “most vulnerable to violence.”  They added that the program to help combat that violence in Flint is being hosted in a location that may be hostile to those women. 

“If we don’t have a place for Black trans women to be safe, or LGBTQ youth to be safe, then we’re all doing the wrong thing,” Sharriff said.

“Part of what I heard from comment was there’s a group of folks who will just probably never knock on the door (at Cathedral of Faith),” said GHS Board Member Dr. Jennifer Johnson later in the meeting. “And so for those folks—obviously, hopefully, GHS itself is a safe place to go—but I wonder if there’s some other community center, like Wellness (Services) or somewhere, that would be perceived as a lot more welcoming.”

Russell said GHS would always work to ensure people get treatment somewhere they felt safe, adding that in retrospect, “it’s not surprising” that Flint’s religious community and its LGBTQIA+ community have differences.

“I think the good thing about the millage is I’ve heard more people talking about mental health in the last three weeks than I have in the last 10 years,” Russell said. He stressed that GHS serves everyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, or beliefs.

“It was unfortunate,” Russell concluded about the video. “And again, I’m pretty sure we deal with other groups that we don’t agree with.”

Russell confirmed that GHS had yet to speak with Martin about his remarks, but it did have an upcoming meeting scheduled to discuss how the 4 Pillars program is going thus far.

For his part, Martin told Flint Beat: “The doctrine of the Church of God in Christ, which is the church I’m part of, is what I preach and what I believe. There is no connection between our doctrine and what this service has to provide. The 4 Pillars project will have to provide services to every resident in the city, period.”

When asked if he was comfortable serving every resident, including Flint’s LGBTQIA+ community, Martin said, “I have to be.”

Martin added that 4 Pillars is not a “religious project” but a “unity partnership” between the participating churches and GHS.

“The service is no different than a doctor who works in a hospital, who may believe certain things religiously, but if someone comes in there, and they are shot and maybe need surgery, you’re not going to find out, you know, what their beliefs are,” Martin said. “You’re going to do your job and save a life.”

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....

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