Washington Taps Pastors To Overcome Racial Divide On Vaccine

In this Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, photo Peter Thomas, 58, of Washington, receives his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at Howard University, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Stately and deliberate, with a distinctive white streak in his black hair, the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith started his Valentine's Day sermon at Shiloh Baptist Church by talking about love and vaccinations.

“That's what love's all about. When you get a vaccination, you are saying to everyone around you that you love them enough that you don't want any hurt, harm or danger to befall them,” he said. “In the spirit of love, keep at it until you get your vaccination. That’s the only thing that’s going to erase this terrible scourge."

The church was empty except for a camera crew and a tiny choir. Thanks to COVID-19, Smith’s Sunday sermons are now virtual affairs.

Still, health officials in the nation's capital are hoping that Smith and other Black religious leaders will serve as community influencers to overcome what officials say is a persistent vaccine reluctance in the Black community. Smith and several other local ministers recently received their first vaccine shots.

Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths. The District of Columbia is now offering vaccinations to residents over age 65, but numbers show that seniors in the poorest and blackest parts of Washington are lagging behind.

Officials partially blame historic distrust of the medical establishment, especially among Black seniors, who vividly remember medical exploitation horrors such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, where hundreds of impoverished rural Black men suffered syphilis effects with minimal treatment for decades as part of the medical study.

“We know we need to focus on Black and brown communities,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of the district's health department, said earlier this month. "Let’s not give up on communities of color being interested in the vaccine. Let’s continue to answer their questions. Let’s continue to be very thoughtful in how we answer their questions.”

The D.C. government is giving priority for vaccine registration to predominantly Black ZIP codes and running public information campaigns, including the clergy vaccinations. The latest numbers show the gap is narrowing, but the southeastern core of the city's Black community is still getting vaccinated at the slowest rate.

“There's distrust in our community. We can't ignore that,” said Rev. James Coleman of All Nations Baptist, who was vaccinated along with Smith. “The church, and particularly the Black church, is essential. ... That's what pastors do.”

Coleman said he has worked to create a vaccine-positive atmosphere among the seniors in his church. Before a recent Sunday morning sermon, conducted via audio conference call , elderly parishioners in Coleman's church updated one another on their progress and congratulated those who had been vaccinated.

“There was some nervousness to overcome at first,” Coleman said. "People outside the Black community sometimes can't relate to that sensitivity.”

Health departments nationwide are dealing with the same challenges, and other jurisdictions also are calling on religious leaders to help dispel vaccine fears.

“Our role as clergy and as faith-based leaders is to be optimistic and hopeful. We say to our people that these vaccines are the gift of life. We believe in the science,” said Rev. HB Holmes Jr. of Bethel Missionary Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

Holmes has gotten vaccinated, and his church has hosted vaccination drives.

“We knew that because of hesitation and reluctance that we needed trusted voices. So we brought together persons of great influence in Black and brown communities, particularly from our community, to say, you know, I’m going to take the vaccine and roll up our sleeves and do that publicly," he said.

In Washington, the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church has been designated a “faith-based vaccination partner,” with a portable vaccination trailer set up in the church's parking lot twice a week. The vaccinations have gone smoothly. But showing that vaccine skepticism transcends racial lines, a white D.C. resident, Kathy Boylan, crossed the city on a recent icy day to stand on the sidewalk outside the church with a sign saying “Danger: COVID Vaccine Say No!”

The city's community influencer campaign is targeting more than just religious leaders.

Prominent Black Washington figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris, local radio host Kojo Nnamdi and Doug Williams, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Washington football team, have all received their injections at southeast Washington's United Medical Center and used their public platforms to encourage others to follow suit.

“I honestly believe that more people want to take it than don’t,” said hospital official Toya Carmichael, who said several people have asked for the same nurse that vaccinated Harris.

But some D.C. officials are insisting that simple cultural reluctance, while real, doesn't fully explain Washington's racial vaccination lag. Interviews with Black residents revealed a common set of complaints: seniors failing to navigate the online registration system or sitting on hold only to be informed that all appointments had been filled.

Lisa Chapman had to overcome both personal reluctance and logistical obstacles in order to schedule vaccinations for her parents, Walter Coates, 82, and Rosa Coates, 80.

First she had to persuade them.

“I just wasn’t certain. I wanted to wait and see for a while,” said Rosa Coates. ”But (Lisa) convinced me. She just kept talking to me about it.”

Then it took waiting on hold for more than 90 minutes, leaving the phone on speaker and then leaping back on when a human answered.

“That's a really long time to wait. I think a lot of people do want to get it. They just can't get through,” Chapman said.

D.C. Council Member Kenyan McDuffie laid part of the problem at the feet of the government. In an interview, McDuffie, who represents southeastern Ward 5, called the city's vaccine rollout “overwhelmingly inequitable” and said talk of vaccine reluctance was obscuring a reality of vaccine frustration, made worse by the digital divide.

“I think there is a larger percentage of people who want to receive the vaccine and have had challenges with scheduling appointments and being able to receive the vaccine,” he said. "My fear is that some of those residents have simply given up."

Smith, in his Valentine's Day sermon, spoke not just of the fear but also the logistical hassles of a confusing process.

"I know many of you have tried to get the vaccine, but there have been so many challenges ... waiting for hours, only to find that what you thought was available is not there,” he said.

Given the community reluctance, city health officials say they cannot afford to frustrate or discourage those seeking vaccination.

Nesbitt said a new registration model would go into effect in March that would bring a further “equity lens” to the vaccination process. Also, officials have organized teams of “senior vaccine buddies” to go to the homes of seniors and help them get through the online process.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon.
In the grip of a deadly second wave of COVID-19, religious charities and faith-based organizations are among the many civil society groups that have stepped up to mobilize relief efforts.
Una nueva encuesta conducida por el Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) e Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) encontró que los enfoques basados en la fe pueden mover a más comunidades indecisas sobre la vacuna hacia la aceptación.
Highlighting the role of faith and community in providing relief to communities during the pandemic, the project documents how diverse religious communities in the Charlotte area are responding to the pandemic.
Rabbi Sandra Lawson offers religious literacy education in this piece focused on Lag BaOmer, the day of celebration during the otherwise solemn period of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot.
While vaccination rates and warmer weather are currently lending us ample opportunity for optimism and joy, we are not nearly out of the woods regarding the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s mental health.
Cargle is not alone in her spiritual discovery. Generation Z has been the driving force behind the renewed popularity and mainstreaming of the age-old esoteric system.
Clergy from 20 New York congregations, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, met as the Interfaith Security Council held its first meeting to talk about how to share expertise and improve relations with law enforcement.
The past four years have devastated communities across the United States with issues including police violence, climate change and environmental degradation, racism, anti-Semitism  anti-Muslim bigotry, and political upheaval.
"No matter the memory, the ability to grow older and look back on life is a privilege. And it’s heartbreaking and disturbing that as a nation we’ve witnessed so many children robbed of that privilege because they were killed by the state."
Musa explores and analyzes data related to the growing irreligiosity and declining religious affiliation in America.
The report, co-sponsored by IFYC and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), revealed higher rates of vaccin hesitancy among certain religious groups, including Hispanic Protestants, white evangelicals, and Black Protestants.
I noticed this year the Christian holiday Easter or Resurrection Sunday fell on the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th. What people outside of the black community don’t realize is when an innocent life is lost it connects us...
Collaboration between religious officials and health care professionals — from both nonprofit and for-profit companies — has aided efforts to increase access to vaccinations.
As various communities consider the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and navigate the physiological and psychological toll of the virus, town halls can be a space wherein community members can be presented with resources and accurate information.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.