CHICAGO (RNS) – Pastors and other church leaders have learned a plethora of lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic: how to broadcast videos, preach to a crowd with blacked-out faces, and make confessions while driving.
Many have also learned a new commandment.
You won’t talk about vaccines.
Less than half of worshipers say their clergy (44%) have spoken about vaccines, according to a Pew Research poll. This includes just over a third (39%) who encouraged people to get the vaccine and a small number (5%) who discouraged people from doing so. These numbers are dropping for evangelical clergy, with 21% encouraging vaccines and 4% discouraging them.
One exception: historically black churches, where two-thirds of worshipers say pastors encouraged their people to get vaccinated. And some have even led their churches to set up vaccination clinics on site.
Pastor and physician, Bishop Horace Smith of the Apostolic Faith Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, a large, predominantly black congregation, feels obligated to take care of his people, both physically and spiritually.
At the onset of the pandemic, Smith knew vaccines would play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19. Without vaccines, the disease toll could become astronomical, said Smith, an attending physician specializing in pediatric hematology and oncology at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
“There is no modality in medicine that has saved more lives and prevented more disease than vaccines,” he said.
Smith said officials made mistakes early on when it came to COVID-19 vaccines. For example, he said, naming the vaccine initiative “Operation Warp Speed” was unfortunate.
“I think that baffled some people, because people think you are cutting corners,” he said.
Smith said he started talking to his congregation about the vaccines before they were available. He worked with other local pastors to encourage church members to sign up for vaccine trials, knowing the trials would help researchers find out whether vaccines were effective for different ethnic groups. This was particularly important, he said, given how hard COVID-19 has hit communities of color.
Smith also worked hard to reassure people about the reliability of the vaccines. It was not enough to tell people that they needed to be vaccinated, he said.
“I always tell people that medicine, like the pastor, is about trust,” he said.
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When the vaccines became widely available in early 2021, the church worked with healthcare partners to deliver the vaccines. So far, her network has helped immunize more than 6,000 people and has recently started offering pediatric vaccines to the church. Smith also appeared on local television when he received his first vaccine, to send the message that vaccines can be trusted.
He pointed to recent statistics on deaths from COVID-19 to take stock of vaccine effectiveness, noting that the vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 are now among those who are not vaccinated.
Smith said he spent time talking about vaccines with other pastors, including those who were skeptical about them – talking about science to some, the Bible to others.
For some Christians, he said, skepticism was rooted in the ideas of the book of Revelation about the so-called mark of the beast, found in Revelation 13. “If you look at the Scriptures, a he said, the vaccine cannot be the mark of the beast. It doesn’t match any of the scripture references.
People who died during COVID-19 did not die because they lacked faith, Smith said. They often died, especially early on, because doctors and religious leaders lacked the knowledge to fight COVID-19.
He sees vaccine development as a gift from God – giving people the knowledge and tools to fight the virus.
“If you have faith,” he said, “then thank the doctors and scientists for their work. And give glory to God because all knowledge comes from God.
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There is no comprehensive national data on the number of congregations that have served as vaccination sites. But Marcus Coleman, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security, said faith and community groups have worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to facilitate about 300,000 vaccinations.
Coleman pointed to church leaders such as Bishop TD Jakes of the Potter’s House, Reverend Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Rev. Walter Kim of the National Association of Evangelicals – as well as conversations led by Obama’s former religious adviser. Joshua DuBois – like helping people have ‘needed conversations’ about vaccines. Religious leaders, Coleman said, can help people talk about the importance of vaccines, but can also listen to people’s concerns.
Talking about vaccines is not just important for the congregation itself. The postcode around the Baptist Church in Salem, about 10 miles south of the Church of the Apostolic Faith, has been hit hard by the virus. Salem Senior Pastor James Meeks has been outspoken about vaccinations and taking steps to keep people safe during COVID-19. Denise Rogers, chief operating officer of Salem, said Meeks has also seen the toll COVID-19 has taken to the community.
“He’s had so many funerals this year because of COVID-related deaths,” she said.
Salem, one of Chicago’s largest congregations, has made administering vaccines a regular part of his ministry to the community. The church has helped immunize more than 5,000 people, Rogers said, and has distributed more than 140,000 masks and 15,000 meals. Currently meeting for in-person worship two Sundays a month, it provides immunizations during services and other religious events.
“We try to do them every time the doors are open,” Rogers said.
Rogers worked with Walgreens and with local health clinics to provide vaccines. She said Salem will work with any medical professionals willing to work on Sundays. Churches, she said, can be an important partner in managing public health, especially in the black community, as they are seen as trusted institutions.
They are also important gathering places, both for older members as well as their children and grandchildren, Rogers said.
Rogers hopes there will be more collaboration between churches and public health officials in the future.
“We have the people here, so come to the people,” she said.
Shaun Marshall, pastor of ministries in Salem, said caring for people’s health – physically, emotionally and spiritually – is part of the main mission of the church, and primarily of Bible teaching. Making vaccines easier, he said, is one way to help give people hope during a difficult time.
“I realize that people can have very different views and even strong opinions about the vaccine,” he said. “However, if there is a way for us to help people hope not to lose their lives or their loved ones due to a virus that we know has been fatal, I think the church should offer it, and any other support we can to help people recover and communities thrive.
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