Many Black Americans look to their religious leaders for guidance on a wide range of issues—not just spiritual ones. Their credibility is especially crucial on matters of health, as the medical establishment works to overcome a legacy of experimentation and bias that makes some Black people distrustful of public health messages.

Now that the vaccines are being distributed, public health advocates say churches are key to reaching Black citizens, especially older generations more vulnerable to severe COVID disease. African Americans have been hospitalized for COVID and died at a disproportionate rate throughout the pandemic, and initial data on who is getting COVID shots shows that Black people lag far behind other racial groups.

Black churches have also suffered during the pandemic. African American pastors were most likely to say they had had to delete positions or cut staff pay or benefits to survive and 60% said their congregations hadn’t gathered in person the previous month, as opposed to 9% of White pastors, according to a survey published in October by Lifeway Research, which specializes in data on Christian groups.

The share of Black people who say they have been vaccinated or want to be vaccinated as soon as possible is 35%, while 43% say they want to “wait and see” the shots’ effects on others, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Eight percent say they’ll get the shot only if required, while 14% say they definitely won’t be vaccinated. Among Whites, the first two figures are 53% and 26%, respectively; for Hispanics, 42% and 37%.

Among the “wait and see” group, 35% say they would seek information about the shots from a religious leader, compared with 28% of Hispanics and 14% of white people.

Historically, no other institution in African American communities has rivaled the church in terms of its reach and the trust it enjoys, still this new territory for the Black church that’s often focused its advocacy on civil rights. While grass roots outreach to Black churches has exited in the past, the closest to this level had to be the outreach around HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. But this time it’s different, 500,000 people have died in just one year.

Leaders with massive social media followings, like Bishop T.D. Jakes, are also weighing in, publishing video conversations with experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci to inform followers about the vaccines. However, ministers in small churches are making their impact within their church walls and their community.

However, small churches are having an impact as well.

Pastor C. E. Watson at St James Church of God In Christ in Arkansas stepped up. He and his church members had been praying every night (with few exceptions) and three times a week at noon since the pandemic began. However, he felt inclined to do more.

With the help of several church members with medical background, St. James pulled together a COVID-10 vaccine clinic. Virgil Watson, Jr., a trustee at the church and retired hospital CEO worked with Connie Rowe, a retired pharmacy technician and Georgi Ann Hollins, a retired RN to pull together and provide the support needed to hold the clinic. They turned the church’s worship and classrooms into a health clinic.

Local drug store Graves Drug Store agreed to make the vaccine available for the event. In just one hour, the event was able to vaccine 15 people, many of them members of the church and some from the surrounding community.

“It was a place in our community where they were comfortable,” said Watson, and it was a success. I am excited that God again established that He uses us and has something for us to do.”

Working with the Black Nurses of Wichita and the Sedgwick County Health Department, several Black churches are stepping up to provide vaccine clinics in the next few weeks. Bishop Broderick Huggins at St. James Missionary Baptist Church, is the first Wichita Church in their lineup.

Huggins said he decided to participate because most of his congregation is over 65 years of age and for their safety, he felt it was important for them to get vaccinated.

Easter is around the corner, and Huggins is planning on opening the church for a socially distanced service. He recognizes how much more comfortable he and his members will feel with returning for this holy celebration, once they’re vaccinated.

With church attendance skewing older, their role is particularly important in the early phases of the vaccination, when the targeted participants are older. However, church attendance is waning among young Black adults, as it is for other races. But elders can set examples for younger people undecided about the vaccine, said Dr. Judith Green McKenzie, chief of the division of occupational medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“When they see their grandma go, they may say, ‘I’m going,’” she said. “Grandma got this two months ago and she’s fine.”

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