Dear Black Churches: We Can Overcome Vaccine Skepticism, Inequity | Sojourners

Dear Black Churches: We Can Overcome Vaccine Skepticism, Inequity

History tells us of the peril of fighting a war on two fronts. Unfortunately, this is where we as Black clergy persons find ourselves right now. On one front, we are seeking to convince our congregations and communities to take one of the COVID-19 vaccines despite the legitimate suspicion we hold because of decades of medical racism being meted out against Black lives. On the other hand, we are fighting as advocates for equity in vaccination distribution so that the people — our people — who need the vaccines the most are prioritized by the state and local governments who are controlling the process.

Thankfully we have much good news to report: In September 2020, Black adults were nearly 50-50 about whether they would be willing to get a free COVID-19 vaccine that scientists had determined to be safe; by December 2020, those numbers had shifted dramatically, with 62 percent reporting vaccine willingness. The Biden administration has committed to science-based strategies and health equity; vaccine production is ramping up; and Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine — which could be especially important in marginalized rural and urban communities for whom the two-dose regimen is seen as a barrier — is currently being reviewed by U.S. regulators.

But we also have a secret weapon: the Black church. It’s my belief that if we are going to overcome vaccine hesitancy and achieve equitable distribution of the vaccine, the Black church will have to take the lead in advocacy for our people who have been among the hardest hit, messaging accurate medical information, and providing greater vaccine access.

Over the last year, Black churches across this country have used their voices to champion justice for Black lives, feed their communities suffering from the economic hardship of the pandemic, and turn out Black voters to flip the White House and the U.S. Senate. Most importantly, our churches have provided hope and healing for a community that has lost a disproportionate amount of our members to this devastating virus. The Black church, while not perfect, continues prove itself to be the best of who we are even with limited volunteers, budgets, and social media followers to the glory of God.

Now our houses of worship across the country are answering the call to vaccinate every person in our community to save Black lives and restore our society to a sense of normalcy by becoming vaccination sites. At my own church, Kingdom Fellowship AME in Silver Spring, Md., we are partnering with Holy Cross Hospital to provide an opportunity for communities of color to get vaccinated. Our goal is to provide an equity framework that will cater to those persons that have been most adversely impacted by the pandemic. Part of this triage framework calls for a reprioritization of vaccine distribution to populations with the highest infection and mortality rates.

By offering vaccines within the walls of Black churches, with pastors and their spouses often filming themselves receiving their shots, Black churches are giving the strongest possible endorsement to the safety and efficacy of the vaccine — a crucial way to address vaccine hesitancy. Using Black churches as vaccination sites also helps ensure equity in distribution: Our churches provide a secure and convenient location, especially in areas where there are neither pharmacies nor reliable public transportation, and our pastors use their influence in the communnity to advocate with local politicians for equitable policies. 

Joining together

Several months ago, realizing this two-front war was coming, I began organizing national clergy forums with leading Black medical experts to cut through the legitimate skepticism and mounds of misinformation that were engulfing our people. During these forums, panelists — including Dr. Leon McDougal, president of the National Medical Association; Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, lead researcher for the team that developed the COVID-19 vaccines at the National Institutes of Health; and Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University and a practicing surgeon — fielded questions from the virtual audience explaining both the science behind the vaccines and the regulatory process in place to assure safety. My team then reduced these forums into downloadable short videos that focused on key concerns like whether one could contract COVID-19 from the vaccine, where the virus came from, and why the virus spready so quickly. These videos have been shared on social media, in virtual worship services, and during virtual town halls hosted by other pastors around the country.

I also joined The Black Coalition Against Covid led by Dr. Reed Tuckson, the president of the American Telemedicine Association and a former public health commissioner for the District of Columbia. The coalition includes the four historically Black medical colleges and universities conducting trials on COVID-19 vaccines, the National Medical Association, the Black Nurses Association, the Urban League, and many other leaders and organizations. The coalition has been at the forefront of addressing vaccine hesitancy and advocating for equity in testing and vaccination availability.

There is much more work that needs to be done. We are asking for Black churches to do three things: First, urge your state and local leaders to prioritize testing and vaccination distribution to the communities with the highest infection and mortality rates. Then continue to educate your congregation and community about the necessity of taking the vaccines through town halls, sharing sound scientific information, and, of course, leading by example. Finally, consider partnering with a local vaccination site to help register and refer members of the community — or to make your church a vaccination site.

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