Late last year, Rev. Dr. Kenneth Kemp received a text message from one of his congregants. The congregant wrote that her mother was in a long-term care facility, but she didn’t know if it was a good idea for her mother to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available.
Kemp, the senior pastor at San Antonio’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, is also a pulmonary and critical care physician. He’s treated COVID-19 patients, researched the vaccine data, and believes the benefits far outweigh the risks. So he texted back, outlining the importance of the vaccine. He didn’t tell the woman what to do, but he shared the data he had.
“And this member of my church said, ‘OK, I feel better about this now, and I want my mother to get the vaccine,’” Kemp told Sojourners.
When Rev. Ann Helmke, who leads San Antonio’s Faith-Based Initiative, invited Kemp to sign an interfaith pledge to publicly take the COVID-19 vaccine, he was quick to say yes. Part of the pledge involves sharing a selfie of the vaccination process on social media.
“The importance of people of faith speaking to their congregations, their constituency, their area of influence, cannot be overstated,” said Kemp, who received his first vaccine dose on Dec. 18 and shared a photo of it on Facebook. “If we’re going to reach 70 percent immunization or immunity in our community, we’re only going to do it if people trust the process.”
The pledge was coordinated by San Antonio’s public health agency and Faith-Based Initiative, an effort started by the city’s department of human services in 2017 to foster better collaboration between religious groups, government agencies, local nonprofits, and other community groups. The idea for an interfaith pledge came out of a weekly interfaith gathering co-convened by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Helmke, an ordained Lutheran (ELCA) minister.
“We’re doing it together as a community and we’re doing it as many faiths,” Helmke said. “It is based on the ethic of reciprocity. The golden rule. Stepping forward as we would want somebody to step forward for us.”
At least 80 San Antonio faith leaders have so far signed the pledge to publicly take the COVID-19 vaccine. A handful of them who work in health care or who are over the age of 65 have already been vaccinated.
Public health officials around the United States are tasked not only with distributing the COVID-19 vaccine but making sure that people actually take it. In November, a Pew survey found that about 4 in 10 Americans likely would not want to get the vaccine.
According to Pew, some Americans don’t feel that they personally need the vaccine to be protected, and remain skeptical of the fast pace of the vaccine’s research and development process. Some of those polled said they might change their minds if they saw more people get vaccinated. Others remain skeptical for partisan reasons or because of historical trauma: Black Americans, who have historically been abused by doctors and scientists in the name of research, remain far less likely to want to be vaccinated.
Kemp, who serves a predominantly African-American congregation, is very aware of this and says he has addressed those concerns head-on in church.
“We have evidence that public health officials have completely abrogated their responsibility to human dignity in the African American community,” Kemp said. “That’s real, and we have to acknowledge it.”
Kemp said he’s looked into what was done in the COVID-19 vaccine trials to mitigate those concerns. “People of color have been included in the studies and there aren’t any more adverse effects in communities of color than there are in other communities,” he said.
But Kemp said he’s also heard unfounded concerns, like the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 vaccine carries a microchip or that it will alter the recipient’s DNA. “Some people have even suggested that people of faith not be involved in vaccines, that that somehow reduces your faith in God,” he said.
“I respond to it by saying God made science and God made scientists, therefore people of faith can use science and scientists to enhance their lives,” Kemp said. “We, as people of faith, are not required to reject science. To me it’s an argument that makes absolutely no sense.”
Fr. David Garcia, a retired Catholic priest within the Archdiocese of San Antonio, has fielded similar concerns that the COVID-19 vaccine is not suitable for certain people of faith. Some Catholics have wondered if they should not get the vaccine because it may have been developed using tissue from aborted fetuses. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in December saying that the vaccine is not only morally permissible but morally good. Garcia said he has shared the same message with anyone who asks him.
“In the Catholic Church we have a long standing teaching called the common good,” Garcia said. “I’m receiving it not just for myself, but I’m receiving it for the common good.”
Garcia received his first vaccine dose on Dec. 31 and has spoken about it publicly with members of his community. “I respond to everybody who writes to me,” said Garcia. “I tell them I’ve done it, I have no fears, and I will take the second booster shot as soon as I am able to do that.”
Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for the City of San Antonio, said it’s “impossible” to work in public health without recognizing the importance that faith communities play in people’s lives, and thereby their health.
“We describe social determinants of health as where you live, work, play, and pray,” she said.
Woo said the faith leaders taking part in the pledge can play a critical role in educating the public about the vaccine, particularly in communities that have good reason to distrust institutions.
“I’m the wrong messenger,” said Woo. “I’m a doctor and I work for the government.”
Joseph Luedecke, a professional social worker, a member of University Presbyterian Church, and a leader with the Interfaith/Community Action Network, a coalition of faith and civic leaders in San Antonio, also signed the pledge and has received the COVID-19 vaccine. Luedecke said he hesitated because he is young and doesn’t see patients every day. Nevertheless, he said it was important to lead by example.
“I was more comfortable than other people taking it, so maybe I can at least use that comfort to spread the word,” he said.
Of course, there are limitations to the interfaith vaccine pledge. Many of the faith leaders who signed up represent communities that may already be more likely to get the vaccine.
“Anybody who is probably coming across the city’s posts about different faith leaders taking selfies of the vaccine is probably searching for that,” said Luedecke.
One of San Antonio’s most famous religious leaders, pastor and televangelist John Hagee, leads a megachurch where congregants have continued to meet in large groups and without masks throughout the pandemic. After Hagee recovered from COVID-19 in November, he told his congregation, “We have a vaccine. The name is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.” Hagee Ministries spokesman Ari Morgenstern told Sojourners that Hagee’s statement was not meant literally, but did not provide any additional comment about whether Hagee has taken or plans to take the vaccine when it is available to him. The church’s Facebook page, which is filled with photos of congregants praying and singing in large groups without masks, does not appear to mention the vaccine.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he isn’t worried about individual pastors like Hagee who appear not to take the pandemic seriously. “Any message that contradicts the consensus medical opinions that are protecting people’s health and saving people’s lives presents a challenge to our goals for vaccination,” he said. “But we’ve seen almost universal response from leaders in our community in helping us with this effort.”
Nirenberg said it is “the nature of social media” to create and reinforce echo chambers. But, he said, if anyone is able to break through those online bubbles, it’s faith leaders.
“Our approach and our philosophy has been that the most powerful tool in the fight against this pandemic has been public trust,” Nirenberg said. “In the last couple of decades, there has been an unfortunate erosion of public trust in institutions far and wide, from certainly the government and media to our educational system and others. The one place where that has been a notable exception has been within faith congregations.”
“I don’t know if my photograph is going to influence them, but it is a symbolic gesture,” said Dr. Devraj Nayak, a cardiologist who serves as chapter president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a nonprofit Hindu social and cultural organization.
“In Sanskrit we use the word yagna: a collective offering. The spirit behind that, is, what am I offering for the larger good?” said Nayak.
Like Luedecke, Jenny Perkins Kiser was also hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine because she, a healthy person in her 40s, might not need it as badly as someone more vulnerable to the disease. But Perkins Kiser, a hospital chaplain and pastor at Covenant Baptist Church, said she didn’t hesitate when it came to leading by example.
“If it comes your way, you need to take it,” she said.
“My congregation has been a dream through all of this. I haven’t gotten backlash about anything,” said Perkins Kiser. “Even still, I wanted to make this proclamation for the vaccines and for science. Any time as a faith leader that I can affirm science in a way that shows it is part of my faith and not against my faith, I want to hold on to that.”