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Faith leaders use medical and religious messages to promote COVID-19 vaccinations

Ken Budd
August 17, 2021
Four people holding hands in a circle

On Sunday mornings in Macon, Mississippi, parishioners at Emmanuel Baptist Church gather in the parking lot, listening to the Rev. Carl Johnson in their cars. Leather seats serve as pandemic pews as Johnson’s deep voice soars from FM radios. Near the church, 18 flags wave in memory of Noxubee County citizens who have died during the pandemic. COVID-19 transmissions are high in the county, yet none of the church’s 175 members have perished from the virus, thanks largely to the efforts of Johnson and his wife, Rolanda.

Rolanda Johnson, PhD, MSN, RN, is the church’s first lady, but she’s also assistant dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and an assistant dean for academics in the school of nursing. Rolanda conducted research on the vaccines, and as part of the church’s Sunday service, she explained to parishioners why they’re safe. Many, initially, were skeptical. Some were concerned about the vaccines’ rapid development. Others in the predominantly African American congregation recalled federal atrocities such as the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study. But as Rolanda explained the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines, some church members were converted — including her husband.

“We were all skeptical at the beginning,” Carl Johnson says. “But once she was comfortable getting the vaccine, she convinced me. And once the church family saw that we were on board, that was the beginning of them becoming more comfortable.”

Whether addressing vaccine concerns in weekly church meetings or listing county COVID-19 statistics in the church bulletin, the Johnsons’ aggressive vaccination efforts have continued. Vaccine access remains an issue —almost 30% of county residents live in poverty — so Emmanuel Baptist partners with a local hospital to help parishioners receive shots. The result: nearly half of church members have been vaccinated, Johnson estimates, compared to 38.4% in Noxubee County overall.

Emmanuel Baptist is one of many places of worship nationwide encouraging vaccinations, whether by sharing information or serving as vaccine sites. In hard-hit Missouri, the James River Church held vaccination events at its various campuses in July, with one event resulting in 156 vaccinations. In April, 757 people were vaccinated in one day at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque has led vaccination clinics throughout northern Virginia resulting in over 12,000 vaccinations for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Numerous synagogues, from Temple Israel Boston to the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, have also hosted vaccine clinics.

“It is critical,” noted Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, senior rabbi of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, one of multiple synagogues that participated in a July vaccination clinic, “that we make every effort to create easy access to the COVID-19 vaccines for our community members.”

Here’s how houses of worship and faith leaders are doing just that.

Influential voices can help and hurt

As the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Frank Logue oversees 69 churches across the southern part of the state. Many of those churches have 100% vaccination rates. One reason, he believes, is because church leaders were among the first in the area to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which sent a message about the vaccines’ safety and necessity.

“I remember here in Savannah, at a principally African American church, one of the older members of the vestry saying, ‘I think it’ll be important for us to put our arms out first,’” says Logue. “That had a good effect. People need to see leadership leading.”

That leadership can affect vaccination rates. In a survey released in July by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), 38% of participants who attend religious services a few times a year say that a faith-based approach — which would include a religious leader receiving the shot — would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Nineteen percent of those who have not yet been vaccinated said the same.

“Faith-based organizations are trusted messengers,” says Ghada Khan, MPH, DrPH, executive director of the American Muslim Health Professionals, which has created a COVID-19 task force. “When there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear, most of us tend to turn to those leaders and places of worship to find answers.”

Anti-vaccine messages from faith leaders, however, can be equally influential. On August 2, a volatile video of the Rev. Greg Locke spread on Twitter, as the Nashville church leader told followers “You will not wear masks in this church” and “Do not get vaccinated.” In April, a Catholic reverend in La Crosse, Wisconsin, made national news when a church bulletin featured an anti-vaccine screed with numerous false claims and the headline, “DO NOT BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG.”

Carl Johnson has witnessed a similar problem in his Mississippi community. At one nearby church, a pastor is opposed to the vaccines — and most members of his congregation are unvaccinated.

Yet as the delta variant surges across the United States, and hospitalizations and deaths increase mostly for unvaccinated people, some skeptics are rethinking their positions — and faith leaders are using the opportunity to embrace their positions as role models.

“Once we became vaccinated, and core leadership became vaccinated, I think that spoke volumes for our membership,” says Rolanda Johnson. “As leaders, we were setting the standard. We were doing what we were encouraging everybody else to do. And some people who were adamant about not getting it are now slowly rethinking the vaccine.”

Spreading the word

1.6 million. That’s how many views the Rev. Lonnie Lacy has received for a YouTube video of his Hamilton parody, “You’ll Be Back.” In Lacy’s version, posted in July 2020, the rector of St. Anne Episcopal Church in Tifton, Georgia, sings and dances to remind his parishioners that their church will be waiting for them after the pandemic.

Many churches are taking a similarly creative and innovative approach to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations. After taking part in a vaccine trial, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., posted a TikTok video of himself getting injected. The clip has received over 388,000 views.

And the Nashville-based African Methodist Episcopal Church has not only administered vaccines at the church, but has worked with Mamie Williams, MPH, MSN, director of nurse safety and well-being at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to  host virtual town halls and podcasts.  

Faiths4Vaccines, a multifaith movement of religious leaders and medical professionals, has led a variety of pro-vaccine efforts “to demonstrate religious communities’ trust in the vaccine.” Those efforts include biweekly roundtable discussions, videos, Twitter campaigns (check #Faiths4Vaccines), and an online national summit. In a training video, an expert from IFYC joined a Faiths4Vaccines host to discuss outreach techniques for combating vaccine hesitancy.

For Logue, the most effective pro-vaccine messages have mixed the medical and the religious. The higher the vaccination rates, he often tells folks, the sooner we can worship in-person.

“Theology and epidemiology both point to the importance of the vaccine,” Logue says. “When I’m just talking about the epidemiology, people know I’m not an expert. So I’m talking about what it means for our faith, with an eye toward the science.”

Overcoming obstacles

For some people of faith, the vaccines have raised ethical questions. In March, two United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) committees issued a statement regarding “the moral permissibility” of the vaccines, particularly Johnson & Johnson. While Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines to test its vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines,” the statement noted. The USCCB maintains that it is morally acceptable to receive a vaccine but discourages use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Several vaccines are being developed without fetal cell lines, which could boost vaccination in the pro-life community, says Joseph Meaney, PhD, president of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“We have a large number of folks who contact us and say they’re essentially waiting for a vaccine that has no connection to abortion-derived cell lines,” he says. “I think that would create almost an immediate surge in terms of a significant number of people getting vaccinated.”

Despite the controversy, Catholic vaccination rates are high. In the July PRRI/IFYC survey, 79% of White Catholics said they were vaccine acceptors — meaning they had been vaccinated or plan to be — and Hispanic Catholic acceptors rose from just 56% in March to 80% in June. Meaney attributes it to the lack of vaccine alternatives, a desire to help the common good, and people’s own personal situations.

“The bishops and different church authorities have been pretty clear [that people] are morally able to choose any of these vaccines,” he says. (Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received their first vaccine doses in January.)

Some Muslims, particularly during Ramadan, worried whether the vaccine met halal requirements while they were fasting, though the vaccines contained no nutritional value that would invalidate a fast, as imams and organizations such as the AMHP quickly noted. A bigger problem: About 58% of U.S. adult Muslims were born outside of the country, and “some immigrants are [also] exposed to misinformation coming from abroad,” which amplifies their exposure to vaccine myths, says Khan.

Misinformation and anti-government sentiments are key reasons why Hispanic and White evangelicals are the least likely religious groups to receive a vaccine, according to the PRRI/IFYC survey (Jewish Americans had the highest acceptance rate of religious groups, at 85%). To help counter that, the National Association of Evangelicals has posted a resource page that features Christian-focused podcasts, videos, Q&As, and a toolkit for faith communities.

Love thy neighbor, get thy vaccine

Every religion has its variation of “Love thy neighbor as you love thyself,” and it’s a strong message for promoting the vaccine.

“Putting others first makes it an easy decision to get the vaccine,” says Logue. “Vaccination is a way of putting your faith into action.”

In an April post for IFYC, Nour Akhras, an infectious disease specialist with AMITA Health Medical Group in Illinois, declared that vaccination is not simply permissible for Muslims, but obligatory. She would be “afraid to face Allah,” she wrote, if she knew that she had infected a high-risk individual who ultimately “died of COVID because of my actions.” In a January 10 interview, Pope Francis issued a strong statement: “I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”    

In Mississippi, Johnson has embraced a similar message.

“I say this all the time — I’m not doing this just for me,” he says. “If we say we love others, then we need to do what we can to make sure that others are safe.”