Since its founding in America more than 200 years ago, the Black Church has continued to evolve, expanding its mission, ministries and various roles in the lives of its members and the larger African-American community.
With unprecedented resiliency, it has served as a “cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed in every way to crush their spirit,” writes Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his recently published “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.”
Gates adds, “No pillar of the African-American community has been more central to its history, identify and social justice vision than the Black Church . . . In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, [it] has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic and social life.”
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Black congregations across the U.S. have recently joined forces in efforts to reduce the waiting period which many of their members face as they seek an opportunity to receive any of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.
Historical Injustice Fuels Blacks’ Mistrust
However, given the history associated with America’s leading medical institutions in concert with the U.S. government – most notably the Tuskegee Study experiments and the Henrietta Lacks case – many Blacks still find it difficult to trust the largely white medical profession.
Research has highlighted modern-day bias by white doctors against Black patients and indicates African Americans still receive suboptimal medical care – an added hurdle that must be overcome before more Blacks participate in the nation’s ongoing drive for achieving herd immunity.
Many Blacks consider conspiracy theories connected to the coronavirus vaccine to be reasonable, leading them to either be fearful of or simply unwilling to receive the vaccine.
But with Blacks disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, both in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, many Black ministers have found it necessary to build trust among their members and to then provide more accessible avenues for them to receive the vaccine.
Some clergy have taken the vaccine as a group in public spaces, including several dozen Black ministers who stuck out their arms for their shots on March 16 at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. following a live-streamed, forum led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden and director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Meanwhile, here in New Jersey, Black Church leaders bent on better protecting their parishioners as the coronavirus pandemic continues its assault, have begun to preach a gospel that extols the virtues of masks, handwashing, social distancing and receiving the vaccine when they are eligible and as soon as the drugs are available.
The Newark-based initiative, formed in February and endorsed by prominent Black clergy who are using their influence as trusted community figures, has yielded impressive results.
These faith leaders, determined to bring their members closer to health equity levels enjoyed by whites, suggest that the vaccine serves as a game-changer and life-saver. And they’re committed to reversing rates of vaccine hesitancy that remain higher among Blacks than any other Americans.
According to a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases survey in December, less than half of Black adults said they planned to get a COVID-19 vaccine. And although willingness was highest among those 60 and older, 41 percent of people ages 18 to 44 said they did not intend to get vaccinated. In another survey published the same month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46.5 percent of Blacks said they did not intend to get a vaccine.
Natasha Williams, a behavioral research scientist and an assistant professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, says the mistrust among many Americans has been fueled by the speed with which the vaccine has been developed and approved for use.
“It’s enormously challenging to convince Blacks to move beyond their suspicions but it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible,” she said. “We just have to think about things that we’ve done in the past that have been effective. The role of churches is potentially one promising strategy,” she said adding that like the Black Church has long played a pivotal role in raising awareness of and participation in public health initiatives.
Additionally, the method of vaccine distribution has led many Blacks to doubt the sincerity of their local governmental leaders and medical institutions as revealed in a tracking report conducted in December from the Kaiser Family Foundation across 23 states whose vaccine data by race/ethnicity revealed “a consistent pattern of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population.”
Thus, access, while a separate issue, remains one that cannot be ignored.
Five Cities – One Mission for Black Clergy
Leaders within the medical profession, understanding that Blacks are more willing to both listen to and believe in what their ministers and faith leaders tell them, have taken this truth to heart and as the basis of a national campaign, “Choose Healthy Life,” which involves COVID-19 testing and vaccine awareness.
Beginning with the program’s launch in January or February in Black churches in Newark, Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Washington, D.C., ministers have reached out to their congregations with one uniform goal: to get members of the Black Church to have faith in shots.
As a CBS2 news report showed, ministers, including the Rev. Max Johnson in Newark, while first skeptical about the effectiveness of the vaccine, have changed their perspectives about the vaccine and the benefits of participation.
“I didn’t want nothing to do with it. I didn’t want to get it at all,” he said.
But he reversed his stance after he learned that his apostolic oversee [Bernard Wilkes] had received the vaccine. “
“He said he already had the shot and I trust him with my life,” he said adding that he now hopes he can inspire similar confidence in others.
Johnson, along with nine other Newark ministers – all part of group they call the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan, publicly got the vaccine in efforts to persuade more members of the Black community to sign up
“In our city, 4 to 5 percent of the folks in the city of Newark of color have been vaccinated today [as compared to Blacks comprising 15 percent of the state’s population]. We have to increase that number,” said the Rev. Dr. David Jefferson of Metropolitan Baptist Church in an CBS2 news report.
“Since the pandemic began we have been with families that have lost loved ones. We have helped them through difficult moments in death,” the Rev. Ralph Branch of Mount Calvary Baptist Church said. “I thank God that we now have the opportunity to help them live by way of this vaccine.”
This is part of the reporting fellowship on racial disparities in the Covid-19 vaccine distribution conducted by the Center for Cooperative Media for ethnic and community media in New Jersey.