When politicians and organizations want to get the word out about something, they often turn to the Black church. Those who want to encourage Black people to take the new covid-19 vaccines are turning to the Black church in hopes of overcoming a deep-rooted mistrust of the medical field. However, some Black pastors aren’t on board.
A major healthcare organization recently approached Rev. A.R. Bernard, the head of Brooklyn, New York’s Christian Cultural Center Megachurch, to join a committee to boost acceptance of covid-19 vaccines in Black communities in New York City. He declined.
Bernard, who leads the largest church in Brooklyn, said he turned down the offer because he worried that some members of his congregation might view his participation as “joining forces with the system” to use African Americans as guinea pigs for vaccines that have been developed in record time.
Reuters interviewed Bernard and other Black faith leaders who said they did not yet want to show public support for an inoculation they felt they did not know enough about.
“We’re concerned about it being tested on persons of color,” said Bernard, who was hospitalized with the virus in March. Bernard said he wanted to wait and see more information on the vaccine side effects.
African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to die from covid-19 than white Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The hesitation to recommend vaccination is striking because Black pastors have been playing a key role in educating their communities about the risks of covid-19,” Reuters reported.
This hesitation didn’t surprise Black Twitter.
“After years of racism in healthcare, Black leaders want real change before promoting the vaccine to their communities,” one user tweeted.
Rev. Dr. J.L. Miller, pastor of New Horizon Evangelical Church Ministries of Northern California, tweeted, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” He added the biblical verse, James 2:18 (King James Version), “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”
But others noted that not all Black people are waiting for their church’s approval before getting vaccinated. “Oh for the Love of God… I understand the history of mistrust therefore it is important to get the facts about the vaccines but I don’t know anyone waiting for a pastors approval for the covid-19 vaccine,” one person tweeted.
On the whole, Black America is hesitant about taking the vaccine, despite the fact that the first person to receive the Pfizer vaccine in the U.S. was a Black ICU nurse in New York City. About 49 percent of Black Americans would be interested in taking the vaccine compared to 63 percent of white Americans, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.
“What we’re dealing with right now is the byproduct of… generations of distrust, suspicion and fear with regard to how medical systems work,” said Edwin Sanders, head of Metropolitan International Church in Nashville, Tennessee, who has been involved with public health education since HIV/AIDS struck in the 1980s.
Black America’s distrust comes from decades of unequal healthcare access, treatment, and most importantly, a history of being used unwittingly as test subjects. The Tuskegee experiment that continued through 1972 withheld syphilis treatment from infected Black men without their knowledge.
“I can’t in good faith tell my people to accept this wholesale, but I also am not trying to support any type of baseless conspiracy theories. It’s a tightrope that I have to walk here,” said Earle Fisher, pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, a small church in Memphis, Tennessee.
“As a pastor and as a healthcare worker, I can see why people should take it, because of the devastation that I’ve seen. But I also understand why the African-American community does not trust it because of how we’ve been treated in the past,” said Reginald Belton of First Baptist Church of Brownsville in Brooklyn.
Belton said he will take the vaccine and provide his members with more information about it, but he has not committed to endorsing it.
Hesitancy about vaccines is nothing new and it’s not limited to the Black community. During efforts to innoculate people against smallpox in the 18th century, supporters had to convince skeptics that the practice helped more than it harmed, wrote Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent. Recently, gaps in vaccinations led to a global measles outbreak in 2019 that was felt in the U.S.
There has been an increase in the number of people who say they’ll get the vaccine. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 71 percent of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” get a vaccine if it was free and deemed safe by scientists. That’s up from 63 percent in a September survey. Seventy-five-to-85 percent of Americans will have to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Almost half of the hesitant Black adults polled say they don’t trust vaccines in general or that they are worried they may get covid-19 from the vaccine.
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Black church congregations have been devastated by the pandemic, said Rev. Eric George Vickers, lead pastor of Atlanta’s historic Beulah Baptist Church. “Church is community for us. It’s the place for spiritual guidance, social awareness, home training, encouragement, you name it. The loss this year can’t be properly explained or expressed. It can only be experienced.”
Many pastors have also died from the virus, including Bishop Nathaniel Wells Jr. of Muskegon, Michigan, who led his congregation at the Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ for more than 40 years, and Bishop Gerald O. Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church, described as a bridge builder by community members in Richmond, Virginia, NBC News reported.
Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Black Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., said seven of his bishops have died from covid-19.
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