Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes ’18 M.Div., Johnie Jones ’18 M.Div., and several other YDS students are traveling to Flint, Mich., later this month to support residents as they deal with the water crisis. The students plan to hold a pastors roundtable conversation on the intersection of ecology and theology and distribute water filters and hygienic items, purchased with funds raised through their “Bless Flint” GoFundMe initiative. Gabby and Johnie took a few minutes from their studies and travel preparations to talk about their involvement with Flint.
What motivated you to take action?
Gabby: When I first learned of the horrific conditions that Flint residents were living in due to the water crisis, I was appalled. What drove me into action, however, was learning that over 40% of that population lives below the poverty line. When I read that, I realized that the individuals affected by this crisis do not have the resources to liberate themselves from the issues that the water crisis brought about. More deeply, I was motivated by the discovery that the government officials who should have been advocating on behalf of their constituents were actually responsible for the water crisis. My goal is simply to provide assistance in the “in-between.” I do not want the residents of Flint to be without external support while the bureaucratic political leadership seeks ways to rid themselves of blame rather than trying to fix the problem they caused.
Johnie: Similar to Gabby, after hearing about the issue I was heartbroken, disturbed, and offended. What drove me into action was the fact that I actually have family living in Flint and have spent many summers there for family gatherings; and, connecting with Gabby to draw more attention to the issue was of great interest to me.
What is the relationship between your YDS education and the activism you are undertaking around Flint?
Gabby: To be honest, when I felt prompted to take action, it was not connected to my being a YDS student but was fueled by my desire to mobilize my church network to do our small part to assist Flint residents. However, because of YDS I met Johnie Jones, who is brilliant and creative and has become my dear classmate and friend. He and I were strategizing about his t-shirt company, which is philanthropic by design, and that led to our conversing about how we might be able to bring our personal networks together to benefit the residents of Flint.
After one of these conversations, I noticed a YDS alum, Pastor Faith Timmons (’04 S.T.M.), post on Facebook the need for assistance for her congregation in Flint, which had been deeply affected by the water crisis. After seeing that, Johnie and I knew that we had found the way that we could intentionally provide support to individuals in Flint directly affected by the water crisis. It was the Yale Divinity School connection that propelled us to work together.
Our work in Flint has now taken on an academic dimension, too. I am enrolled in Associate Dean Jennifer Herdt’s Moral Revolutions & Social Change course, and will be using my time in Flint as my hands-on project that her course requires.
What was your background before attending YDS?
Gabby: I have a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Hampton University and a master’s in music business from NYU, and I have worked in public relations and events for the past 10 years. I serve on the ministerial staff of a church in New York City. I also work in PR and strategy for the company that I started, Brydge Media Collective, LLC.
Johnie: Before coming to YDS I served as an advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several years, working on public-private partnerships. Before that I was working on my master’s degree in public policy from the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
How does your faith inform/inspire your project to support the people in Flint?
Gabby: As a Christian, I find that everything I do is affected by my faith. In this instance, I wanted to see the Christian community rally around these residents to make change. I was seeing assistance here and there from other organizations but I didn’t see any support from the church universal. While the church does overseas mission work well, we sometimes ignore the needs of our own nation. I didn’t want to see that happen any longer.
Johnie: As a person of faith, I believe the gospel of Christ calls us to go, to think critically, and to be present with those who are marginalized by society. I see our trip to Flint having a two-fold purpose: It’s a ministry of presence and a ministry of engagement.
What are you studying at YDS and what are your plans post-graduation?
Gabby: I am deeply passionate about practical theology and the ways in which faith shows up within the culture. I am most interested in how people’s commitment to Christianity affects their day-to-day choices, experiences, and opportunities in life. While I currently serve as a staff minister at a church, upon graduation, I see myself still working in congregational ministry, providing spiritual direction for those who enter the church, as well as those who don’t.
Johnie: I am very concerned with leveraging the resources of faith-based institutions to spur community and economic development in impoverished and rural communities.
As people at YDS have learned about your efforts to support people Flint, what has been the response?
Gabby: We have seen an incredible outpouring of support from our YDS community and beyond. People gave instantly and are continually asking how they can do more to help. From Dean Sterling to our classmates, and everyone in between, we have received an overwhelming amount of support from the YDS community.