Early in the pandemic, during one of my “church check-ins” over Zoom, I opened the floor for our members to share any challenges they might be facing as a result of the shutdown so we could be more responsive and supportive. After a few responses, the call went surprisingly silent. I prodded the group and one of our wisest, most active retirees surprised me with her contribution: “We’ve been through challenging times before. We are resilient people. We are okay.”
We’ve now dealt with the challenges of lockdown and the pandemic for nearly a year and our resilience is being tested. Congregations across the nation are grappling with the lived realities of communities impacted by 450,000 deaths.
The crisis has been especially devastating for the Black community. On average, the U.S. is experiencing 3,150 deaths per day, with Black Americans dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. While vaccines have been a source of hope, vaccine distribution programs around the country are facing several challenges — and inequities in the process are further disenfranchising communities of color.
I pastor in Southeast Washington, D.C., where local activist and community leader Ronald Moten is helping spearhead a local vaccine delivery effort. But he says people from more affluent communities across the city are overwhelming the neighborhood and receiving the vaccine before members in the community. The New York Times reports that disparities in vaccine distribution are happening nationally among clinics in urban and low-income communities that are disproportionately African American.
And the inequity in vaccine distribution is only one of the challenges complicating efforts to provide care to communities of color around the nation. Another factor is the high rate of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community.
Many recall the history of the Tuskegee experiment, in which the government studied the progression of syphilis in nearly 400 Black men from 1932 until 1972 while lying to the men and telling them they were being treated — when they in fact were being given a placebo so the effects of the disease’s progression could be studied. More than 100 of these men died from syphilis or related complications, at least 40 of their spouses were infected with it, and the disease was passed on to at least 19 of their children. It is one of the most egregious instances of racist practices in health care — and it's top of mind for many during this time of heightened racial tensions and a period of racial reckoning.
As our communities are facing these obstacles, it’s incumbent upon churches to step in, to fill the gaps to ensure the needs of their communities are met.
Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson is chairman of the board for the Conference of National Baptist Churches (CNBC) and serves on the state task force in New York that is dedicated to assuring equitable distribution of the vaccine. Grace Baptist Church, where he pastors, is a COVID-19 testing site, and will soon become a pod distribution center serving 500 people per day.
The CNBC plans to work with other churches in their network to set up vaccination sites while providing pastors with resources that enable them to speak to African American communities and combat disinformation about the vaccine. Campbell AME Church, where I pastor, will likely be a vaccination site in Washington, serving a predominantly Black population in the city.
Churches, pastors, and denominations have a part to play. As vaccines become more readily available, congregations in urban communities can become crucial for ensuring their neighborhoods are served. Pastors can use local platforms — like Sunday announcements, church websites, and bulletins — to communicate locally so the vaccination sites are not overwhelmed by affluent neighbors.
Most importantly, pastors can continue to preach, teach, lead, and provide services that enable their congregations to remain spiritually and mentally healthy and whole in the face of challenging odds — always pointing to Jesus, who reminds us as much as we have done our service to the least of these, we have done it unto him (Matthew 25).
During this time of uncertainty, I am reminded of that Zoom check-in nearly a year ago and am inspired by our unfailing resilience. May we all rise to meet this moment and may we hold on to the assurance we find in the words of John Newton’s hymn: “through many dangers, toils, and snares, [we] have already come; 'Tis grace hath brought [us] safe thus far, And grace will lead [us] home.”