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‘A Safe Space’: Black Pastors Promote Vaccinations from the Pulpit

Dozens of people gathered at the Word of Life International Church in the South Bronx on a recent Saturday for its weekly food bank, but the …

‘A Safe Space’: Black Pastors Promote Vaccinations from the Pulpit

Dozens of people gathered at the Word of Life International Church in the South Bronx on a recent Saturday for its weekly food bank, but the pastor wanted to ask the crowd a question before the groceries were handed out: Did anyone know where to find the closest vaccination site?

“Yankee Stadium is always open!” shouted one woman, seated on one of the many folding chairs in the windowless, fluorescently-lit room. “Take the six bus, straight up.”

“174th street and 3rd avenue is 24 hours,” said another woman, standing up in the crowd. “You go there at 2 o’clock in the morning, it’ll still be open.”

The pastor, the Rev. John S. Udo-Okon, said he wanted everyone there — mostly Black residents, including seniors and mothers with small children — to know that the coronavirus vaccines were easy to find and, more important, that they would not harm them. More than 80 percent of adults in New York City have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, but there are significant racial disparities in the vaccination rate.

Only 55 percent of Black New Yorkers have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 92 percent of Asian Americans, 75 percent of Hispanic residents and 62 percent of white residents, according to data published by the city government. Community leaders attribute that low vaccination rate to a combination of factors, primarily a history of racism in the medical system and a subsequent distrust of authorities.

To address the gap, health officials and some Black churches have sought to use the power of the pulpit to vouch for the safety of vaccines and to push back against misinformation. They have also hosted vaccination events in church halls or from mobile vans parked outside of churches after Sunday services.

“These cultural institutions are a safe space to have discussions — you go to your faith leader and they’ll answer questions,” said Dr. Torian Easterling, the first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

He said most of the concerns he hears are about the speed with which the vaccine was developed, or worries about possible side effects. To address those fears, he said, the department had spent more than $24 million since March 2020 on education and outreach efforts, including mobile vaccination sites, training local groups to respond to vaccine hesitancy in their community, leaflets and street canvassing.

The pastor, accompanied by Rose Paulino, a Spanish translator, sought to dispel misinformation about the vaccine during a town hall at the church. Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Many religious leaders have tried to lead by example, getting a vaccine dose in front of their flocks or sharing their own vaccination stories from the pulpit, like Pastor Udo-Okon. Some, including the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, have used sermons to preach the virtues of vaccination in quasi-religious terms.

In March, Pastor Butts organized a vaccination event in the basement of his church that included a news conference so he could get the shot in front of TV cameras. Local dignitaries stood nearby, including Hazel N. Dukes, president of the N.A.A.C.P. New York State Conference, and gave speeches about the importance of vaccination.

“We have every reason to say the best minds that we have are encouraging us to take the vaccine,” Pastor Butts said. “The kind of conspiracies we saw in the past were real but they do not exist about these vaccines.”

Pastor Butts said vaccine advocacy had to overcome the legacy of those conspiracies, including the Tuskegee syphilis study, during which government researchers withheld syphilis treatment from hundreds of Black men for 40 years so they could observe the course of the disease.

When talking to community members, Pastor Butts said he emphasizes the role of Black doctors in the development of the vaccines and in pro-vaccine public health campaigns, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith at the Yale School of Medicine, and the National Medical Association, a professional society of Black doctors.

Black Americans are more religious than the American public as a whole, and roughly 60 percent of Black churchgoers attend a majority Black church, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center.

But the reach of Black churches may be limited, especially with younger people. Only 30 percent of Black Americans under 40 attend a Black church, according to the Pew study, and city data shows younger Black people are less likely than older generations to be vaccinated.

Among Black New Yorkers, only 48 percent of those between 18 and 44 have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with roughly 60 percent of those 45 and older, according to city data.

“Gen Z and millennials have a different relationship to the institutional Black church,” said Nichole R. Phillips, the director of the Black Church Studies program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “If you have a generation that isn’t as present in the pews, that will impact the use of the church as a place of public health education.”

Dr. Easterling said city health officials know outreach efforts at churches will primarily engage “an older population,” but he said those efforts to address vaccine hesitancy could have a subsequent effect on the young.

“We know particularly in Black churches, we have seen it is primarily older generations that have really focused on going to church in person,” he said. “We also do see parents in their 40s or 50s, as well, and they play an important role because they talk to their adolescents and their children. They share information.”

More than one million people in New York City have contracted Covid-19 and over 34,000 have died from it since the city’s first confirmed case on Feb. 29, 2020, according to city data.

That includes 175,751 Black New Yorkers who contracted the coronavirus by October, or roughly 9 percent of the city’s Black population, compared with 245,536 white New Yorkers, or roughly 7 percent of the city’s white population. According to city data, 31,108 Black New Yorkers had been hospitalized because of Covid-19 and 14,820 have died of it as of this month.

The coronavirus has taken a steep toll in neighborhoods like Hunts Point, which is home to the Word of Life International Church, a Pentecostal congregation that Pastor Udo-Okon started 21 years ago in his living room.

One out of every six people in the church’s ZIP code has been diagnosed with Covid-19 since March 2020, and one out of every 179 people there have died of the disease, according to city data.

Pastor Udo-Okon, his wife and children all got sick with Covid-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic, he said. Telling members of the congregation about his experience with the virus and the vaccine made it easier to persuade them, he said.

“It makes us authentic when we approach people: ‘Listen, we have suffered together, now lets get vaccinated so we can stay safe and so life can return to normal,’” he said.

At the recent food pantry event, the crowd filed out of the storefront church and lined up on the sidewalk to take canned goods, dried pasta and fresh produce from volunteers who stood before towers of cardboard boxes and thick plastic bags.

Pastor Udo-Okon told the crowd: “I took Johnson & Johnson, my son took Johnson & Johnson, my wife took Pfizer. The F.D.A. has given final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, and it says all of the vaccines are safe.”

“We could be in this situation for a long time. We don’t know how long this virus is going to last,” said Ralph Grant, 70, a volunteer at the church.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Most of the people in the pantry line said they were vaccinated, as were volunteers, like Ralph Grant, 70, a maintenance worker at the United Nations. Mr. Grant hauled boxes of dried goods from the church storage room out to the sidewalk.

He said he had been wary of the vaccine until the reverend convinced him to get vaccinated at a mobile vaccine unit parked outside the church one Sunday after a service. He said the reverend reminded him that “when I was a kid I got vaccines, like we all did.”

“I thought, ‘Well, I am still safe after those vaccines, so let’s give this one a try,’” said Mr. Grant. “We could be in this situation for a long time. We don’t know how long this virus is going to last.”

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