How Black churches may hold the key to combating COVID vaccine hesitancy in the Black community

Across the United States, Black churches has been leading community efforts to fight vaccine hesitancy within local communities. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
Across the United States, Black churches has been leading community efforts to fight vaccine hesitancy within local communities. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

The Cathedral of Grace St. John AME Church, a historic Black church outside of Chicago founded almost 200 years ago, continues today to be a force of well-being in its community, signing up more than 750 people to receive their COVID-19 vaccination on Tuesday alone through a joint effort with the city of Aurora and a group called Black Vax Aurora.

Last week in New York City, meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton and 10 other church leaders got vaccinated with fanfare at an event organized by Choose Healthy Life, a group of the nation's leading Black clergy focused on increasing COVID-19 testing and vaccine awareness. Held at Harlem Hospital, the event exemplified that mission, with Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing that First Corinthians Baptist Church and other houses of worship would soon open pop-up sites for increased vaccine accessibility.

"We want to set an example to our community," said Sharpton at the time, adding, "I'm here saying I cannot afford not to take the shot."

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Debra Fraser-Howze
The Rev. Al Sharpton with Choose Healthy Life founder Debra Fraser-Howze at a recent Harlem event promoting COVID vaccinations to the Black community. "I'm here saying I cannot afford not to take the shot," Sharpton said. (Photo: Courtesy Choose Healthy Life)

In January, Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones took a similar approach when he organized an early vaccination site at Koinonia Worship Center in Pembroke Park, the church his father founded. And in the Atlanta suburbs, since the start of the pandemic, the Rev. Damon Williams of Providence Missionary Baptist Church has worked hard to keep his flock safe by preaching the importance of social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, as well as by combating myths around "vaccine hesitancy" in his congregation.

There has been much media coverage around the idea of vaccine hesitancy among Black individuals throughout the pandemic — understandably, considering this country’s long history of medical racism — with reports that more than half of Black people do not plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

But increasingly it has been Black churches that have taken on the powerful role of bolstering faith about vaccine safety in communities around the country.

“The rightful place for the Black clergy is to step into the breach and be a drum major for justice, as Martin Luther King was — this is their role, and we need them to advocate for us right now," Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of the Choose Healthy Life organization behind the recent New York City event, tells Yahoo Life. “The governors of Texas and Mississippi have told people to go back to work and take off their masks. What we need to do now is have the preachers in the church talk to the Black community and tell them to mask up, because we can't afford to relax ourselves right now … with our rate of death, our rate of infection and and our current health conditions."

To understand what has become a national effort to get COVID-19 vaccinations out to the most underserved communities, we talked to experts about the power that Black churches have historically held — and continue to hold — across the United States.

But why Black churches?

In the past, the Black church “has played and consistently still plays a significant role in the Black community given that a number of African-Americans still participate [in it],” explains Cathedral of Grace St. John Rev. Cheryl L. Green, a force behind the Chicago-area effort, in the city of Aurora. Green, whose studies have focused on the intersectionality of race and ethnocultural identity, tells Yahoo Life that the influence of the Black church stems back to its inception, “primarily because it was the only institution that was organized and founded by Black people to address their specific needs.”

Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that the Black church was “one of the early mechanisms for the development of social leaders.” He notes that “of course, it has never been the only organization committed to the well-being of Black people, but its practices, rhetoric and presence captured the imagination of many and allowed it to maintain its claim to being the organization for Black uplift — even when its actions run contrary to that claim.”

What community role does the Black church play?

In February, a study by the Pew Research Center showed that Black Americans are more religious than most Americans and that most of the Black Americans who do attend religious services tend to do so within Black congregations. But the role of Black churches varies widely.

The way a Black church serves its community typically falls into two general categories, Pinn explains. “The first is an other-world orientation that downplays physical existence and privileges the well-being of the soul,” he says, noting that the other is “a this-worldly orientation, and churches holding to this would be involved in the well-being of their communities — understanding that type of involvement as fundamental to their faith.”

Referencing the latter role, Green tells Yahoo Life, “It is the central responsibility, desire, the heart [and] the belief of the Black church and [its] leadership to take a stand for … the needs of the members of its community to have those needs met. And that includes public health, whether it comes to vaccination, maternal health, mental health and well-being — anything that is going to impact the membership of that congregation, the Black church leadership will take a stand on it one way or another.”

Pinn points to a long-running partnership in Ohio, between the University Hospitals-Otis Moss Jr. Health Center in Cleveland and Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, as a good example of such. “These are the sorts of churches that would provide wellness plans, blood pressure checks, exercise plans — would play a role in the sponsoring of health clinics,” he says.

However, Pinn points out that “the reality is that not all justice work flows through the Black church, nor is it always controlled by the Black church,” pointing to the decentralized leadership model provided by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fighting vaccine hesitancy

Pinn says he can understand the hesitancy of the Black community when it comes to getting vaccinated and to trusting the medical field in general.

“There are clear and frightening examples of anti-Black racism within the practice of medicine, and this history isn’t lost on African Americans,” says Pinn. “One only need think, for example, of the Tuskegee Experiment [in which Black men were unknowingly used as guinea pigs] to get a sense of why many African Americans are reluctant to receive the vaccine in particular and seek out preventive medical attention in general.”

But the roots of mistrust go far beyond Tuskegee, as Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, recently told U.S. News: "People are aware of Tuskegee, but they're hesitant because of how they had been treated yesterday. … The ongoing abuse, disrespect and profiling that occurs [in medicine] is what is driving people's memories" of medical racism. "It verifies the Black experience that we've not really resolved in our country," said Benjamin.

However, Green says it may be our only hope.

“We do understand the leeriness about taking a vaccination [because] we understand we have a historical reference to draw from,” says Green, “But our desire is that our members [and] our people — if at all possible — do not contract the virus. There are too many of us that are dying.”

She adds: “If the pendulum swings in the other direction, all we have is the vaccination — and so we have to endeavor to try to get people vaccinated with the prayer and with the belief that we are not being inoculated with some other mutation. This is about our health, because we have to take care of our health if nobody else does.”

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