Flint, MI—”Phil, sit down.”
Patricia Schmitter, sister-in-law of Father Phil Schmitter, gently reminded her brother to take care of his health every time he stood during his retirement party. After 50 years as a priest, the last 13 at Christ the King Catholic Church, there were many people who wanted to come and say hello—and goodbye—and he stood to greet them all. The day before the retirement party, Schmitter’s doctor told him that he had gout—which explained the foot pain he’d felt for a while—and said Schmitter should stay off of his feet.
He’d had a brief moment during the outdoor party to relax, seated at a long table next to his family members and closest friends, dressed in his usual non-priest attire of a button-up and dress pants, while parishioner after parishioner stood and spoke about what Schmitter’s life and ministry had meant to them.
James Rouse, who’d supplied the party’s ribs, was the first to stand and speak. To Rouse, the party was a celebration of Schmitter’s life, a man who would still be with them afterward but “not in the same capacity.”
“I want to thank Father Phil for bringing life. I want to thank him for the vibrancy he brought,” Rouse said.
Parishioners cheered, and Schmitter leaned back in his chair and clapped along. But these days, Schmitter was more tired than full of life. After more than half a century of helping others, he was tired. He was ready for what was next. He was experiencing what so many priests and pastors feel after decades of listening to others and seeing them through the worst of their lives—the mental and physical exhaustion that comes with fulfilling one’s purpose.
Sarah Lowe, head of the Trauma Health Center at Yale University, defines trauma as “something threatening, death, or violations to your integrity.” Priests and pastors can deal with this almost daily, even though not many take the time to think about it.
Lowe said the first step in treating trauma is treating immediate needs; however, dismantling systemic issues is “fundamental to the community’s healing.”
Priests and pastors can end up playing a significant role in a community’s healing, especially in cities like Flint, where issues like gun violence and poverty are rampant and public resources are scarce.
Having served the Flint community since 1970, Schmitter is well aware of the trauma that Flint has faced over the years, from the water crisis to unemployment to gun violence and to most recently the pandemic that has only exacerbated these issues.
Leading up to his retirement, Schmitter would end many of his weeks by presiding or attending a funeral on the weekend. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic he lost a fifth of his choir to the disease. One weekend, he presided over his first double funeral. He cannot estimate the number of funerals he preached at in the last year, and does not want to know. Even the weekend of his retirement party wasn’t without tragedy—one of his closest friends had died the day before.
In the weeks since he retired on July 7, Schmitter has been settling into his new home in Burton, a change of location from his previous home in public housing in the River Park Townhouses in Flint. Schmitter is hoping for a simpler lifestyle in retirement with only two tasks: praying and taking care of his health, something he said he hasn’t done well in the past. He is also hoping to heal from the amount of grief that has occurred in the pandemic as well as the trauma he’s seen and helped people through for the past half century.
“There were certain times where I used to run x amount of miles a day and eat quite well and my weight would be decent,” Schmitter said. “Somehow, towards the end, and one of the reasons I said, ‘Ooh, I guess it’s time to retire’ is, I just kind of lost my ability to do that. So, I’m hoping to find some of that in the twilight of my days.”
City of faith, city of action
Schmitter is far from alone. With a church seemingly on every block, faith-based institutions seem to play an integral role to the 81,252 residents in Flint. According to MapFlint, a resource created by the University of Michigan-Flint, over 164 religious/ministry organizations are licensed in the City of Flint. According to Cause IQ, a website that provides information about nonprofit organizations, the number of religious/ministry organizations in Flint may be larger, with the site estimating 360 religious/ministry organizations.
“Flint has always been a city of faith, has always been a city of action,” Pastor Chris Martin, of Cathedral of Faith, said. “Sometimes there are churches on every block just because men have ideas to start a ministry and they choose to do so. And so with that being said, you know, you can never have too much preaching going on.”
Pastor Monica Villarreal, of Salem Lutheran Church, believes that faith-based institutions not only respond to individual needs but also keep an eye out for larger problems that affect Flint.
Villarreal was born in Flint in 1973 and has worked as a pastor in the community since 2010. Villarreal was one of the first community responders in the Flint Water Crisis, serving on the Flint Water Crisis Resource and Recovery Committee for several years. She noticed that in 2013, faith communities responded: “before anybody else on all levels.”
“We filled a major gap when the government failed this community,” Villarreal said. “So much of the structure came out of faith communities. We did have pastors pushing, you know, demanding answers, bringing people to account, organizing, talking with their parishioners, caring for their parishioners, all these things. The faith community is a central part of the fabric of the city of Flint.”
During the water crisis Villarreal delivered cases of water through her church. Her work as a pastor is what spurred her to obtain her master’s degree in social work in 2017.
“If I wasn’t a pastor doing what I was doing, I wouldn’t be a community organizer, and I wouldn’t be teaching at Michigan State University,” Villarreal said. “All of those other things help reinforce why I am a spiritual leader in this community and my love for congregational ministry, where that is a community in and of itself.”
Dick Preston first met Schmitter in 1972 when he had returned from a Guatemalan trip in his seminary years. Preston just accepted an appointment at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Burton. As he headed into his new home at Holy Redeemer Parish, Schmitter was leaving the same room where Preston would be staying. They became instant friends.
Schmitter indoctrinated Preston into Friday Night Ministries. Every Friday, Preston, Schmitter and a couple other priests would go to bars in Flint, settle down in the booths with their “priestly shirts on,” and wait for people to approach and talk with them.
“He was really good with people you know who were drinking in there for a reason, or who had lifetime issues, or there were many angry with the church,” Preston said.
In 1975, Schmitter co-founded the St. Francis Prayer Center with Sister Joanne Chiaverini out of a desire to teach people how to pray and “bridge gaps that exist between religious and racial lines.”
Schmitter still remains connected with the St. Francis Prayer Center, where the mission has expanded to include advocacy on environmental and racial justice issues in Flint, such as the NAACP v. John Engler case and the Select Steel Case.
“I was very affected by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, during those, those years of the early ’60s, and his letter from the Birmingham jail and why we can’t wait and some of those things had quite an effect on me about the need for social justice and the sinfulness of white society in general. But the Christian religion often totally missed the fact that that was a very important moral issue,” Schmitter said. “So I always in my gut kind of hope that I could be in the city and minister there.”
The way Martin sees it, religious institutions have always acted as a second hand to governments. In Flint, he said, this role is even larger. Pastors feel the need to act as an advocate for their parishes and surrounding communities.
Martin started preaching at 20 years old because he “knew that it was his calling.” He was born in Chicago but raised and attended schools in Flint. Martin was also the youngest African American ever elected to a position in the city of Flint, having been elected to the Flint school board in 1997.
Martin said the distinction between church and state must be maintained, and it doesn’t mean that religious institutions can make decisions for a community. Rather, they need to be attuned to a community’s needs. He said that it is the duty of a priest to double up as advocates and activists, “speaking truth to power.”
“In the bible, every king has a priest,” Martin said. “And that’s how I see my role as I work very closely with the governor, as I work very closely with the mayor.”
Cathedral of Faith is the “city’s church,” Martin said, where the religious leaders have relationships with different gang members and provide prayer, counseling, and intervention for people affected by trauma such as the water crisis and ongoing gun violence.
On December 29, 2020, residents of Flint walked down the streets of Flint’s north side to honor four victims of gun violence. The murder of 25-year-old Naomi Anthony occurred at Hasselbring Park, just behind Cathedral of Faith.
Martin distinctly remembers the anguished sound of mourning that came from Anthony’s sister at the prayer walk, an indescribable sound that was unlike any other sound. This was a sound that “pastors hear too often.”
“As a pastor, we get tired of hearing that sound from people, and trying to comfort them at that hour is very hard,” Martin said. “But it’s not something a politician can do—we have to do it. This is why our church is in the inner city of this community. We can’t move to the suburbs. We have to stay right here.”
After the prayer walk, the community has seen a decrease in violence around Cathedral of Faith and where the murders had occurred and that events like the walk “play a huge role in getting people’s faith where it needs to be,” Martin said.
“I think that if more churches would just make sure that they preach hope and that they would be open, it’ll continue to strengthen the people in the city,” Martin said.
‘The science and study of the soul’
While priests and pastors may be the ones on the lookout for parishioners, they can be at a loss as to where to turn to for help themselves. According to Christina Lynch, an advisor for the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, priests may experience a “sense of shame about getting psychological help (which) may worsen if the priest or seminarian does not view the therapy setting as confidential or safe.”
At Schmitter’s retirement party, Dr. John Varani, a psychologist with the Institute for Christian Counseling, provided the blessing for Father Phil Schmitter, calling up words in a gravely from John O’Donohue’s poem “For an Occasion of Celebration.”
“Now is the time to free the heart, let all intentions and worries stop, free the joy inside the self, awaken to the wonder of your life,” Varani said.
Schmitter had met Varani about 30 years ago through his wife Stefanie Hawka, who Schmitter had seen for therapy. The three became close friends until Hawka’s passing in 2013. Since then, Varani has been Schmitter’s therapist, along with being one of his longtime friends.
“It’s been twelve years since I joined you and your coming here, and it’s been blessing after blessing after blessing,” Varani said to Schmitter, beaming at him.
Varani had worked as a priest for 27 years before returning to school to become a psychologist, although he believes that what he is doing as a therapist is not unlike his former profession as a priest because “it involves a lot of listening.” His main concern in both lines of work was helping people “understand who they are.”
“Psychology is a spiritual activity for me,” Varani said. “When I meet with these therapists and clients, these are all spiritual activities. They’re all rooted in the deepest part of my spirit. I don’t think I’ve made any major shift at all when I went from ministry to psychology and psychotherapy. We’re living up to the name of psychology, the science and study of the soul.”
While the job calls for priests to be like therapists themselves, being the only confidant in people’s lives sometimes can take a toll if you have no trusted confidants in your own life. This is why Schmitter prioritizes talking to Varani at least once a week.
“I have things, especially now, to kind of sort out,” Schmitter said. “So, to me, although this is not a judgment, but to me, the unhealthy ones are the ones that say, I don’t need that mental health stuff. … We all need to have some kind of relationship with someone to kind of sort out things. It’s helpful if they’re knowledgeable.”
Varani said one common problem he sees from people working in ministry or as a priest is being stuck in a fear where they don’t feel safe, preventing them from being “open and receptive to other people.” He sees his role as a therapist is to establish a blanket of safety to allow people to navigate their emotions, but more importantly, trust themselves.
Beyond the pulpit
Tia Coles is the director at the Hurley Recovery Trauma Center, a level one trauma center in Flint that provides free services to adults and children.
Coles said that trauma is “really like guilt,” where its immediate impacts can be hidden, and the most important way to deal with trauma besides having immediate needs met is to talk.
Beyond traditional hospital settings like the Hurley Recovery Trauma Center, patients affected by trauma can look to community centers and faith-based institutions to have these spaces of conversation, Coles said.
“We have to have those conversations and many of our faith-based institutions and community centers have always opened their doors to have meetings, to have conversations, to make sure that the community is heard,” Coles said. “You have to be able to hear them in order to know what their needs are.”
Jeff Hawkins, the pastor at Prince of Peace Baptist Church, said that Flint has always dealt with crises, but faith communities can be advocates.
Even before the water crisis, there were problems like gun violence, unemployment, and poverty, he said. And after the water crisis, there was the pandemic and racial injustice. Faith delivers hope for people, Hawkins said, but he also warned that religion shouldn’t cause people to accept the conditions of Flint as they stand.
“People always say about Flint, you know, that we’re resilient here,” Hawkins said. “That’s true. And, and as much as that’s true, it almost frustrates me when people say it, because we’re not resilient to the point of we shouldn’t be taking these licks anyway. We should have never had a water crisis. We should have never had the poverty issues, the failing school structure, the violence. Those things should have never happened. So we’re resilient, and yeah, we are still standing, but now we need to come out of this rut and be able to now at least live the quality of life that is suggested here in this country, which you haven’t seen here for the entire Flint.”
To Hawkins, a pastor also has an obligation to live a life representative of the religion they believe in.
Prince of Peace Baptist Church can draw anywhere from 20 to 100 people during their Sunday service. Hawkins’s faith journey began in 1997 when his mother persuaded him to attend church with her on Sundays to stop him from “selling drugs and carrying guns.”
“I went to church because of my mama and stayed because of God,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins accepted his call into ministry in 2002 and began preaching at Prince of Peace in January 2007. In that same year in August, Hawkins buried his first son, who was shot and killed.
It shook Hawkins to the core. He began to have questions on whether life was worth living.
Hawkins said he turned to God to help pull him out of this dark spiraling, but he knew with his new job that he had an even greater obligation to live.
Many people in the community were looking to him as an example of how to live a faithful life. If he truly believed in the word of God, he said, he needed to live.
“If I gave up, how many people would I really hurt, you know, who’ve come to trust what they’ve seen? And so not only will it affect me, not only will it affect my wife, my children, my family, friends, but the people who’ve watched me do this over the years, and they’ve gained strength by it. So it’s not worth me giving up.”
Hawkins said that as a pastor, his duty is to help the community. He refers to James 2:26 from the Bible, which states, “Faith without works is dead.” He said he looks to the teachings of Jesus Christ as an example of the obligations a pastor should hold to the community, with Jesus being “out in the community more than in the synagogues.”
“I can’t separate me being a pastor and me helping people,” Hawkins said. “I was saving people prior to being a pastor, and being a pastor gives me more ability and resources to help people even more, so I can’t separate it.”
Lowe said that faith-based institutions can also act as a bridge connecting parishioners to mental health services because they “know their parishioners really well” and can detect “changes that warrant attention” from clinical psychologists.
Joanne Rowlery is a parishioner at Christ the King Catholic Church and said that Schmitter was on the counseling team that assisted her physically abusive father into “getting back where he needed to be” when she was 10 years old.
“He kept my father straight,” Rowlery said. “He didn’t let my father act up or say things that he wasn’t supposed to. He kept him straight. Father Phil said, ‘You gotta quit this shit,’ because when people die he gets angry. So, yeah, Father Phil got it right.”
Rowlery said she would always come back to the church because she trusted Schmitter.
“He was just somebody I trusted and he led me back to God,” Rowlery said. “I remember Father Phil from St. Michael’s in kindergarten when I was a little girl in the cafeteria. Being down there, being in the church, he was one of the priests that I knew that was trustworthy. … All priests are not like that.”
Although Schmitter still needs to settle into his new home in Burton, it contains some of the essentials: an old bible from his father, framed quotes from prominent faith and civil rights activists that have yet to be hung, and some yellow flowers.
“I don’t remember ever getting flowers,” Schmitter said.
The flowers were sent from Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest organization based in the United States dedicated to litigating environmental issues, and the lawyer of a 1992 lawsuit against the EPA of which Schmitter was a co-plaintiff through the St. Francis Prayer Center, (which he founded). The case stated that the pollution from the wood-burning Genesee Power Station was a case of racial discrimination.
On January 19, 2017, the last full day of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental stated that was evidence of discrimination in Flint. It was the longest-running civil rights case against the EPA.
Schmitter said he is the last of the original people from the case because, “it’s been so long, and I was the youngest.” He said it is an “encouraging thing” to see young people continuing the fight against environmental injustice. “These new people are coming in, these Earth justice attorneys,” he said. “People that just believe the environment is something that we need to work on together and all that stuff. So that just is a very encouraging thing for me.”
It also means that Schmitter can now let the next generation carry the torch. He can rest.
He can rest, but it doesn’t mean he will. For people like Schmitter, there is always work to do.
After he relearns how to be a “relaxed human being,” Schmitter has one final goal for fighting for systemic change: educate himself on LGBTQ+ rights.
“I think that gender is not understood well by the Catholic Church and I think the way we treat gay people is horrific. I mean, really sinful and evil,” Schmitter said. “And so I think we need to know more about it. So I’m going to do some studying and praying and talking to other ministers and priests that I respect and who do a lot of work with them. And I have a lot of friends who are gay, and I want to learn more. And I think that I may be able to figure out something to say that will at least begin to change how we deal with gay people.”
Toward the end of his party, Schmitter stood to speak to the crowd.
“I kind of thought when I came here in 2009 … some of the problems in the world will be a little bit more resolved, and I’ll have achieved this, and I’ll be a better man,” Schmitter said to the crowd gathered at his retirement party. “And I’ll be a better preacher, and I’ll be a more loving person. And I found that there are still those moments when I’m still as unloving as I was at certain other times in my life and that, you know, it’s God who’s perfect, and I can try to reflect on God as best I can. But I’m not perfect. And so I’ll do the best I can to offer my imperfection.”
When he finished, parishioners began to gravitate toward him. One by one, they asked to take a picture with him, present him with a gift, or simply wish him a simple, “Happy retirement.”
He obliged them all.
“Phil, sit down,” Patricia said.
Schmitter stayed on his feet. Hugging. Posing. Saying goodbye.
One by one, the parishioners left. Eventually the only people remaining were Patricia, his brother, Preston, and a handful of parishioners. Phil was still on his feet, talking.
Patricia picked up one of the chairs that hadn’t yet been packed away and carried it over to her brother. She was no longer asking. This was a command.
He looked around at the empty space, at his friends, his sister. No one was asking him for help. No one, at the moment, needed him.
Finally, he eased into his chair.