Churches in predominantly Black communities can play a key role in vaccinating against COVID-19

John Burwell gets plenty of reminders that the volunteer work he does has become a matter of life and death. All the Homestead, Pennsylvania, man has to do is glance at his phone to see the importance of his efforts to educate the Black residents of local neighborhoods about the value of being vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I opened up my phone yesterday and [saw that] four people I knew died from it,” Burwell said in late December. “That was in one day — one day!”

Painful moments like that keep him vigilant as an unpaid health deputy with the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a faith-based Pittsburgh nonprofit with a mission to strengthen communities affected by trauma. His University of Pittsburgh training on vaccines and his employment as a community program specialist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh make him well qualified for the role.

But Burwell’s health science knowledge isn’t what gives him credibility on the street. That comes from his reputation as a trusted man of faith. He’s one of seven ministers in his prominent local family, so when he warns community members about a dire threat and the value of vaccination, he finds that people are willing to hear him out.

“They’re thinking that clergy and ministers would give them the truth and not lie to them,” said Burwell, who leads music programs at Second Baptist Church in Homestead, a community 7 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. “I let them know that I’m coming at this with a heart of concern about humanity. It’s not just a concern about an individual but about our existence on this planet.” 

How have you built trust with your neighbors?

Pittsburgh’s faith-based outreach adds to what’s being described as an all-hands-on-deck push to educate Black residents about COVID-19 vaccines and the crucial role they can play, especially if most opt for vaccination this year.

In the early days of the pandemic, members of Roxbury Presbyterian collaborated with fashion designer David Josef to sew and distribute masks in the community. Photo courtesy of Roxbury Presbyterian Church

That, however, is a big “if.” Many are wary of being vaccinated even though COVID-19 has disproportionately ravaged racially marginalized communities for reasons ranging from higher rates of chronic disease to crowded housing conditions that can make social distancing difficult.

No demographic group has been more disinclined to get vaccinated than Black Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted late last year. Only 42% of Black survey respondents said they would definitely or probably take the vaccine if it were available then. Across the survey overall, 60% of respondents said they’d definitely or probably get vaccinated.

Reasons for mistrust

This leeriness among Black Americans is rooted in the past and in the present. Burwell notes that many in his community know about the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, a 40-year U.S. Public Health Service study (1932-1972) that deceitfully withheld treatment from 399 Black men with syphilis in order to study the disease’s progression.

Black skeptics worry that they might be similarly abused in the name of science with emerging COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s not just about Tuskegee,” said the Rev. Paul Abernathy, the executive director of the Neighborhood Resilience Project. “A lot of people had a history of clinical abuse in their social networks or even have personally experienced this in the current health care systems. This history of clinical abuse, I think, heavily informed perspectives on the vaccine.”

Many have felt mistreated by health care providers who haven’t taken their concerns or symptoms seriously, according to Shondell Davis, community trauma healing specialist at the Social Impact Center, a nonprofit housed at Boston’s Roxbury Presbyterian Church. Or they’ve been victims of racism in other settings and fear that vaccines might be used to harm them.

“It’s all about what you’ve experienced,” said Davis, who’s involved in the church’s multipronged campaign to inform Boston’s Black communities about COVID-19 vaccines. “Say you went to a white doctor and he didn’t tell you something or you felt you weren’t treated right or you weren’t diagnosed correctly. Why would you trust a white doctor telling you to take this vaccination?”

But vaccine leeriness could prove deadly. Experts warn that resistance to vaccination programs in racially marginalized communities could endanger far more than the unvaccinated individuals. It could also truncate virus-fighting efforts across the board.

Rhonda Lockett, an ordained elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, posts signs about COVID-19 in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Lockett

A population that gets vaccinated at half the rate of another could, just one year later, have a 6 times higher infection rate, and a higher death rate as well, according to Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health and the chief architect of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

“One of my greatest fears right now is that one year from now, if African Americans avoid this vaccine, … the disparity [in infections] is going to be 6 times,” said Graham at a January online panel hosted by Roxbury Presbyterian. “I really don’t want to see that happen.”

Local church leaders, including pastors and respected lay leaders, are stepping into this wary atmosphere. They’re wielding hard-earned moral authority to vouch for unfamiliar experts. The hope: if faith leaders can open pathways for reliable vaccine information to reach everyone, countless lives may be saved. 

Who are the ambassadors for your church or organization in the larger community?

“For most people, the more information they have, the more likely they are to trust, particularly if that information comes from somebody that they trust — and I think that’s where the clergy come in,” said Sharon Knight, interim executive director at Stop the Spread, a nonprofit that mobilizes the private sector to help vulnerable communities build defenses against COVID-19. “They’re trusted community leaders who people look to for advice and for counsel, not just as individuals but as a community.”

Building on experience

In Pittsburgh and Boston, the approaches aim to build upon what’s worked in the past. For the Neighborhood Resilience Project and Roxbury Presbyterian, the goal of faith-based outreach is to equip neighbors to voice their questions, consider experts’ opinions and make informed decisions for themselves and their families.

What’s more, the faithful in both cities are drawing on systems that have proved effective for distributing information to traumatized communities in the past. Now they’re re-imagining and repurposing those systems for a public health crisis paired with daunting logistical challenges.

Roxbury Presbyterian, a predominantly Black congregation, is leveraging its pastor’s background in broadcasting to reach across Boston. The Rev. Liz Walker is a local celebrity, best known for her prior career as a popular Boston TV news anchor.

For years, her 150-member church has hosted open mic events that give victims of trauma a rare platform to tell an audience how they’ve suffered.

Participants have recounted trauma’s effects on their lives, whether from an abusive home, wartime deployment or mental illness. Eliciting stories to find solutions has become a trademark of Walker’s ministry style. 

How do your leaders provide reassurance in times of confusion or anxiety? How might that look different in matters that are not strictly theological?

Now she is gathering up her neighbors’ questions about COVID-19 vaccines and putting them to experts. Her first in a series of vaccine education webinars drew 2,800 viewers to question Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In early January, she teamed up with the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a Black pastor and medical doctor in Boston, to interview Graham, the vaccine architect, who is white, and two local Black physicians who specialize in infectious disease.

“People are asking questions that I think are very valid,” said Walker, who has also published editorials and recorded a public service announcement as part of Roxbury Presbyterian’s vaccine information outreach.

White-Hammond and Walker speak with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley as part of the COVID-19 webinar series. Photo courtesy of Roxbury Presbyterian Church

“The problem isn’t that there’s not enough information. It’s that there’s too much information,” Walker said. “So we say, ‘Let us help you get the information — we’ll have these ongoing sessions — and then make your own decision. But here’s what we know: this risk [of vaccination] is not as great as having the disease.’”

The webinar gave experts a stage to deliver crucial information. Graham, for example, explained that the vaccines weren’t made from scratch at breakneck pace. Rather, they are built on more than a decade of related research that was repositioned to battle the novel coronavirus.

A matter of equity

Some of the questions drove at why those involved in vaccine distribution should be trusted.

“Why do you trust that the common good is being served by pharmaceutical firms that we already know overcharge and have historically overcharged for necessary drugs like insulin?” Walker asked, reading a viewer’s question.

The query was directed to Graham, whose work is linked to Moderna. Rather than defending the pharmaceutical company, he responded by sharing a personal story.

“Maybe the best way to express it is that my African American daughter, who lives in Los Angeles and is an architect — she enrolled in one of the vaccine trials,” Graham said. “This is somebody I really care about. She trusted her daddy, and I trusted the vaccine enough that I thought it was safe enough for her to test.”

That panelists and their clergy interviewers were hoping to change minds was no secret. A poll taken at the webinar’s start found that 74% of viewers said they were planning to get vaccinated. By the end, that number had climbed to 89%. Panelists smiled and clapped upon seeing the results, which were framed as a sign of progress to save lives.

“We need everybody to get this vaccine, and I would say that I am feeling encouraged,” White-Hammond said.

She said she’d resolved not to let the last breaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and now Susan Moore, the Black physician who called out her own racially biased treatment for COVID-19, be in vain. Using vaccines to defend against the COVID-19 threat is one way, in her view, that Black communities can work toward equity.

Learning from other epidemics

In Pittsburgh, vaccine-conscious faith leaders have built on a methodology that took shape in response to another epidemic: gun violence. The Neighborhood Resilience Project’s Abernathy, a Black Pittsburgher himself, launched the NRP 10 years ago as a faith-based nonprofit to pursue “trauma-informed community development.”

What they learned about confronting gun violence, among other health risks, gave them a blueprint for tackling a crisis no one expected. 

What relationships do you have in your community that you might build upon in a crisis?

“What we learned is to approach gun violence just like any other disease,” Abernathy said. “There were three big elements of this epidemiological framework. One was to interrupt the transmission of the disease. Second was to prevent the future spread of the disease. And third was to change community norms. …We took that and we adapted it to COVID-19.”

When the pandemic hit, the NRP trained 118 volunteer health deputies in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh and other partners. Those deputies fanned out into 15 predominantly Black communities in the Pittsburgh metro area, where they discussed virus safety protocols. They also successfully recruited Black participation in the University of Pittsburgh’s trials last summer for the Moderna vaccine.

An infrastructure of relationships

That infrastructure has now been retooled for vaccine education. Many of those same deputies, motivated by faith, are now going back to individuals they’d already contacted to share the good news of coming vaccines and how getting vaccinated can be beneficial.

The vaccine education effort has drawn the likes of Rhonda Lockett, an ordained elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Before the pandemic, she would venture out into the Hill District, where abandoned houses are a perennial sign of hard times, wearing a bright yellow health deputy vest that told the world, she says with a laugh, “Here comes sunshine!”

She’d hand out feminine hygiene products or share information on getting health insurance and lining up other types of support. 

What new partnerships have you developed during the pandemic? What other opportunities might you pursue?

Now staying home, she leverages banked trust by calling those neighborhood contacts, getting referrals and answering questions about COVID-19 vaccination.

She spends up to six hours a week making calls that typically last 10 or 15 minutes each. She often shares that she’s motivated by her faith.

“I do bring up God, and that’s accountability for me,” Lockett said. “A couple of calls have included prayer. A 95-year-old lady said, ‘I am extremely afraid of COVID. Would you pray with me?’ And I was delighted to do that.”

Volunteers in Pittsburgh distribute bags of personal hygiene supplies as part of their community outreach during COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Lockett

Lockett feels that her efforts are making inroads. Many of those she calls assure her they’ll get the shot, she said. But patterns of resistance pose ongoing challenges. Lockett says she finds the most skepticism among young adults, who present as overconfident about their health prospects and distrustful of government.

“In the community I’m working, there are so many young African American men who are angry and have distrust,” Lockett said. “What works to reach them is to be kind and to be soft in your speaking. … Towards the end, I say: ‘You know what? God loves you, and so do I.’ That gives them something to think about.”

As faith leaders bring their moral clout to bear, they’ll have more opportunities to get creative as vaccine operations ramp up, according to Stop the Spread’s Knight. Pastors might turn their own vaccinations into role model moments, for instance, by being photographed getting the shot, sharing the photo on social media and publicly saying why they did it. They can also offer their trusted church facilities as convenient sites for getting vaccinated.

“Clergy can reach out to [pharmacy or health clinic] partners and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to have a vaccination day in the parking lot of my church,” Knight said. “Helping remove barriers to access by creating alternative destinations where people can access the vaccine is another important role the churches can play.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • How have you built trust with your neighbors?
  • Who are the ambassadors for your church or organization in the larger community?
  • How do your leaders provide reassurance in times of confusion or anxiety? How might that look different in matters that are not strictly theological?
  • What relationships do you have in your community that you might build upon in a crisis?
  • What new partnerships have you developed during the pandemic? What other opportunities might you pursue?

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from “Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy,” by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (Westminster John Knox, 2020).

As the coronavirus shutdown of 2020 takes a hefty toll on the coffers of congregations, many will soon have to ask whether they can still afford a full-time clergyperson. Shifting to part-time clergy can save tens of thousands of dollars — enough in some cases to keep open a church that otherwise would have to close.

Yet mainline Protestant churches routinely resist going part time, even when they’re between pastors and taking a fresh look at the position. They’ve heard from pastors and from their denominations that part-time ministry all but guarantees further decline. But that’s not true.

Part-Time is PlentyIn the course of researching part-time clergy in 10 states, I’ve visited 20 mainline Protestant congregations that have found more vitality, not less, in key areas from worship to mission after cutting back from having full-time clergy.

They’ve done it by empowering laypeople to use their gifts and fulfill ministry passions that never got traction under a full-time pastor with an impossibly vast set of responsibilities.

In today’s tough economic environment, we can no longer afford to maintain the belief that the only churches with bright futures are those with full-time clergy. We must shed the thinking that dismisses the part-time ministry option — a mentality that may in fact hasten the demise of local churches.

In my work both as a reporter and as a pastor, I’ve found that mainline congregations tend to begin with an assumption that full-time ministry is always the ideal. I found this in my own church, First Parish Church of Newbury (UCC). Prior to my arrival as part-time pastor in 2013, parishioners had clung to a full-time pastorate until the endowment was depleted, deficit spending was devouring cash flow, and the prospect of disbanding was suddenly on the table for a congregation founded in 1635. The small flock had so equated going part time with giving up that congregants, for a long time at least, would rather have gone broke trying to retain a full-time pastor.

They weren’t alone.

“We were afraid we wouldn’t be a real church” if the pastorate were to go part time, said Ron Bookbinder, a ruling elder at Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, whom I interviewed for my book.

He realizes in hindsight that this belief was unfounded; Clarendon made the switch and is thriving, with growing membership, more participation in outreach and fresh, creative uses of their flexibly redesigned sanctuary. But letting go of the bias and trusting in God to water and bless a thoughtfully structured part-time arrangement took time.

The failure to view part-time clergy as a viable way to structure ministry can lead churches to unwittingly stack the deck against a successful part-time pastorate.

Judicatory staffers may urge congregations to keep clergy full time for as long as possible, for example, because they regard part-time as the kiss of death. But that’s a mistake. Churches that wait too long to go part time and then poorly structure the ministry all but guarantee an inward-facing collapse.

If they’re blessed to have endowments, as my church was, they may deplete those coffers by paying clergy salaries they can’t afford. They use up monies that could have enabled future investments in ministry, with no new flourishing to show for it.

What’s more, congregations have by then used up precious time. A membership that was once young and energetic enough to take on more ministry responsibilities in a part-time rubric is severely diminished in size and energy by the time the switch happens.

At that point, fiscal margins are razor thin or the church is hemorrhaging cash. Laborers fit for the harvest alongside a part-time pastor are now few. On their knees and fearing closure, congregations in this situation reluctantly go part time at the last possible hour. But by then, their continued decline is virtually a fait accompli.

When they fizzle out, they often hear, “I told you so. Part-time is the kiss of death.” That mistaken analysis misplaces blame and perpetuates the full-time bias in mainline church culture. The cycle of death unfortunately and unnecessarily continues.

In some cases, congregations inflate assumptions about how much in church life must be done solely by clergy. Convinced that only clergy can effectively preach, administer sacraments, pray with the dying, visit the sick and represent the church around town, congregations will shrug and concede: “Oh, well. Too bad. Wish our church could do more for members, friends and the wider community. But without full-time clergy, our hands are tied.”

That mentality distinguishes congregations that keep declining from those that take steps to empower laity in new ways and thus thrive. Learning that roles don’t have to be so rigid, that laypeople have more authorization than they realize, that ministry in all its profundity and blessings is meant to be shared — all of this requires a concerted mental shift.

Congregations that thrive after going part time have made that mental shift. The ones that keep declining after going part time either haven’t made it or made it too late to be successful.

To help congregations to make the shift, we must redeem part-time ministry from stigma. That process will need to include heightened appreciation for the important, normative role that part-time ministry has played through most of the church’s history. And it will need to dispel the dismissive contemporary attitude toward part-time work — not just in ministry, but in all segments of American culture.

In many circles, “part-time” unfairly conjures negative associations, as though it were a synonym for halfhearted, not really committed to the job. But why?

“Full-time” refers to working 40 of the 168 hours in a week. That’s less than 25% of the week, yet it’s valorized as if it were a complete commitment, in contrast to, say, that of a part-timer who gives 18% of his or her entire week to a 30-hour job.

In other words, we all give only a fraction of our lives to work, even those of us who are salaried and put in more than 40 hours. “Full-time” is a misnomer that seeks to carve out a separate, elite class of worker. If our lexicon were more precise, we would acknowledge that everyone works part time.

Dedication is a qualitative measure of commitment to work that gets done in an allotted time frame, no matter how large or small that window of time happens to be. It is not a quantitative measure based on the time frame’s size alone.

Hence, those engaged in ministry on a part-time basis (under 35 hours per week) can be every bit as dedicated as their full-time colleagues. The part-timers are just working on the right scale for the faith communities they serve.

The reluctance of mainline cultures to view part-timers as every bit as dedicated as full-timers is akin, it seems, to America’s cultural resistance to working mothers in the 1950s.

The mothers of that era who worked outside the home were looked down upon, pitied or both. Because they did not spend all their working hours solely on homemaking, they were scorned for being insufficiently dedicated to the children and husbands who were presumed to need their full, selfless attention.

This attitude was inherently classist, as only middle- and upper-class households could afford to live such a lifestyle, and glamorizing it only reinforced a premise equating wealth with moral wholesomeness.

Mainline denominations, despite championing progressive public and ecclesiastical policies, have remained largely stuck in a 1950s idea of a dedicated clergyperson. Expecting that the church must be the clergy’s sole professional focus is as dated as insisting that every mother must stay at home and forgo paid work in order to raise her kids.

These days, some mothers still choose to stay at home when doing so fits their families’ needs and resources. Likewise, some clergy still work full time when doing so meets their congregations’ needs and resources.

But just as millions of today’s mothers need and want to work outside the home, countless numbers of today’s clergy also need and want to work outside the church. This does not mean they are bad mothers or uncommitted pastors.

Just as America has embraced working motherhood, mainline churches need to embrace part-time ministry as a legitimate, holy, every-bit-as-dedicated calling.